LOS ANGELES — The air inside the Los Angeles Patients and Caregivers Group was pungent with the aroma of premium hydroponic marijuana, but the proprietor, Don Duncan, said on Thursday that he was breathing a bit easier.
A day before, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had said that the federal authorities would no longer take action against medical marijuana dispensaries if they were in compliance with state and local laws.
While 13 states, including California, have laws allowing medical use of marijuana, they had not been recognized by the federal government. One of Mr. Duncan’s two marijuana dispensaries was a target, in 2007, of one of the scores of raids involving medical marijuana that the Drug Enforcement Administration conducted in Los Angeles during the Bush administration.
Mr. Duncan, a founder of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group, said he was meeting with officials at City Hall at the time of the raid, trying to work out a local ordinance under Proposition 215, which allows the medical use of marijuana.
“I got a call and found out they smashed through our window and pried open the back door,” Mr. Duncan said. Since then, he has operated only one dispensary, fearing he could again be a target of the federal authorities.
Mr. Holder’s statement that he would not authorize raids on medical marijuana dispensaries appeared to shift Justice Department policy, at least rhetorically, away from the Bush administration’s stated policy of zero tolerance for marijuana, regardless of state laws. Advocates of medical marijuana welcomed the change.
But conversations with government officials on Thursday revealed disagreement within the administration about how great a shift Mr. Holder’s statements represent.
A spokesman for the drug enforcement agency, Garrison Courtney, pointed out that the attorney general’s statement indicated that the federal authorities would continue to go after marijuana dispensaries that broke state and federal laws by selling to minors, selling excessive amounts or selling marijuana from unsanctioned growers.
Mr. Courtney said that the agency had raided only a fraction of the thousands of marijuana dispensaries now operating and that agents had used discretion to go after only the worst offenders.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the United States attorney in Los Angeles, said his office had prosecuted only four medical marijuana dispensary cases since the passage of Proposition 215, a 1996 ballot measure that made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana. That measure set off a decade-long fight over several legal issues.
The case of Charles Lynch, a dispensary operator whose business was raided on the same day as Mr. Duncan’s, was the most prominent. Mr. Lynch was convicted and will be sentenced on Monday in federal court. He faces a minimum of five years in federal prison for charges that included selling to a minor under the age of 21.
Mr. Lynch’s lawyers argued that he violated no state laws while operating his dispensary and said that by registering with the local Chamber of Commerce and paying taxes, he was working to abide by the law. Mr. Mrozek said Mr. Lynch had broken local and federal laws.
“Charles Lynch might be the last man to go to jail for medical marijuana,” Mr. Duncan said.
A Justice Department official said the situation of marijuana dispensary operators already in the criminal justice system would be decided case by case.
Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning research group in Washington, said Mr. Holder’s statement indicated a more pragmatic and less ideological approach to drug enforcement.
“This is an example of recognizing the limited resources they have, so they have to make decisions about the soundest use of available resources,” Mr. Agrast said.
The attorney general’s comments also indicated that the Justice Department would allocate greater resources for investigations of white-collar crime, including financial crime, and other enforcement areas that received less attention during the Bush administration.
Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that supports medical marijuana, agreed that Mr. Holder’s statement signaled a shift in policy.
“Attorney General Holder is saying something explicitly different from both Bush and Clinton,” Mr. Nadelmann said. “He’s saying that these medical marijuana laws are kosher by state law and we’re not going after those. He’s saying federal law doesn’t trump state laws on this.”
Mr. Duncan, the dispensary owner, said he was cautiously optimistic about Mr. Holder’s statement but would reserve judgment about how much things would change in his business.
“I think we’re going to see less and less federal interference,” he said. “At the same time, there’s going to be more and more scrutiny from state and local agencies.”
By SOLOMON MOORE
Published: March 19, 2009
New York Times