- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In a move that puts into policy what has been the Obama administration’s practice since taking office, the Justice Department announced Monday that federal law enforcement will no longer target medical-marijuana users and distributors in states where it is legal.

While the change runs counter to the George W. Bush administration policy of targeting medical-marijuana providers for federal prosecution, some medical-marijuana advocates had a tepid reaction to the new policy, which is not formalized in law.

Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group in California, said federal agents have raided 12 medical-marijuana dispensaries or growth facilities in the nine months since President Obama took office. He said about 200 such raids were undertaken in the eight years of the Bush administration - a rate of not quite 19 in a nine-month period.

Despite his general approval of its direction, the Obama administration’s new policy still leaves him uneasy.

“I’m not confident because it leaves the discretion up to the U.S. attorney to investigate, indict and prosecute based on a state law violation,” he said. “It is really not the purview of federal law enforcement to enforce state law.”

Mr. Hermes said his group is “elated that there is now an official written policy in regards to the Obama administration’s policy on medical marijuana; however, there is much more to be done.”

He called for the administration to commit to more research and a national policy regarding medical marijuana. He said that about two dozen people face federal charges related to medical marijuana and that the new policy does nothing to address what will happen to them.

In a letter sent to the top federal prosecutors in each of the 13 states that allow some form of medical marijuana, Justice discouraged federal law enforcement from focusing its “limited investigative and prosecutorial resources” on those in compliance with state medical-marijuana laws.

“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement. “This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the department has been following since January: effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers, while taking into account state and local laws.”

The Justice Department’s policy reflects a position Mr. Obama expressed during the campaign.

“I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” Mr. Obama said in March 2008 to the Medford Mail Tribune newspaper in Oregon, one of the 13 states that permit medical-marijuana use.

He told the newspaper the “basic concept of using medical marijuana for the same purposes and with the same controls as other drugs prescribed by doctors, I think that’s entirely appropriate.”

Mr. Holder reiterated that position when speaking to reporters in March, shortly after assuming office.

“Our focus will be on people, organizations, that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal law and state law,” he said.

Monday’s letter, which formalized the administration’s policy on the issue, said the Justice Department shouldn’t hesitate to get involved in cases that include violence, sales to minors and large-scale drug-trafficking organizations that hide behind the protections of medical-marijuana laws.

“This guidance regarding resource allocation does not ‘legalize’ marijuana or provide a legal defense to a violation of federal law,” Deputy Attorney General David A. Ogden wrote in the letter sent to the U.S. attorneys in the 13 states that allow medical marijuana.

The affected states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, the component of the Justice Department that handles the bulk of drug crimes, declined to comment on the new policy and referred such requests back to the Justice Department.

But DEA spokesman Rusty Payne did say the agency “never targeted individual users.”

“We’ve always focused our efforts on criminal organizations and large drug-trafficking organizations.”

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