Uncle Sam will no longer bother with medical marijuana users and their caregivers, so long as they adhere to medical pot laws in the 14 states that have them, according to new guidelines Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday.
The guidelines, laid out in a memo sent to all United States attorneys, formalize earlier statements by both Holder and President Barack Obama that the administration has no interest in pressing a clash between federal and state pot laws that brought frequent marijuana dispensary raids and occasional prosecutions of backyard growers during the Clinton and Bush eras.
But with varying interpretations over what kind of dispensaries California's medical pot laws allow, advocates say the impact remains unclear.
The three-page memo declared the Justice Department's commitment to fighting Mexican drug cartels and other large-scale marijuana manufacturers and traffickers, but suggested that battling patients and caregivers who are "in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law" is a waste of time.
"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," Holder said in a statement, "but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide between claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."
Where that leaves some of the hundreds if not thousands
of medical pot clubs statewide is uncertain. In some counties, such as Los Angeles and San Diego, local authorities, with help from the federal government, have taken aim at the wide proliferation of pot clubs, with a narrow view of a state law that says patients can exchange marijuana only in collectives or co-ops. Others, such as Alameda County, have taken a far looser approach.
How federal authorities might act in that legal gray area is unclear. Several medical marijuana advocates note that a handful of dispensaries, from San Diego to Lake County, have been raided since Holder announced the policy shift in January.
"You cannot overstate how big a deal it is for the president of the United States to end the Clinton- and Bush-era active opposition to medical marijuana across the country. It's a huge deal to not have the feds acting unilaterally to harass, intimidate and terrorize patients and caregivers," said Stephen Gutwillig, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But the devil is in the details of what state compliance should be in California."
Dale Gieringer of California NORML downplayed the memo.
"It leaves a lot of latitude for the feds to pretty much go after anybody they think is in violation of state law, and there's a lot of disagreement about what state law is," he said.
The guidelines do suggest when the federal government might step in on pot clubs, citing illegal gun possession or use, violence, sales to minors, or signs of money laundering or ties to other criminal activity.
One national opponent of state medical marijuana laws said she welcomed the guidelines, particularly after Holder's earlier remarks.
"My understanding is: U.S. attorneys felt they weren't allowed to prosecute ( marijuana cases ) anymore, so it brings some clarity," said Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation.
"We don't really see this as too much of a change. It's pretty clear the guidelines did not endorse marijuana and don't in any way change the fact it's still a very harmful, addictive illegal drug. It clearly allows the DEA to shut down dispensaries that are breaking the law."
Marijuana is a banned substance under federal law, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 upheld the right to federally prosecute medical marijuana users in states that allow it, in a case brought by Oakland activist Angel Raich.
A Justice Department official declined to say how the federal agency would interpret California's medical marijuana law, saying only that the new guidelines shield "sick patients who have prescriptions who are within the confines of state law. It does not cover people who claim state law to mask illegal activities."
Some marijuana experts say the policy that Holder announced in January already has led to hundreds of new pot clubs opening up, mostly in Southern California. Other states that are debating legal marijuana for medical use -- including New York and New Jersey -- might be encouraged with the policy change, said Gutwillig, of the Drug Policy Alliance.
For Buzz Fowler, who runs a small dispensary on San Pablo Dam Road in El Sobrante, the new position spells relief. Not long ago, Fowler said, his landlord got spooked by a letter from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
"He had pressure from the DEA, that you're allowing a controlled substance to be sold out of your building," Fowler said. "They weren't going to renew my lease. Now he's told me, 'We don't have a problem.' That took a lot of weight off my shoulders."
One pot advocate called it another in a series of positive steps toward legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana in the state. Among them was a respected state poll this year that for the first time found a majority of Californians in favor of legalization.
"It's one more sign the prohibition is going to end," said Richard Lee, president of Oaksterdam University in Oakland, which runs a variety of marijuana-related courses. "When local officials see the federal government is backing them up less and less, they're going to be more prone to agree with us that it's time to tax and regulate."
Lee is among advocates who are pushing a ballot initiative that would allow individuals to grow and keep small amounts of pot for personal use, and allow cities and counties to tax and regulate sales and commercial growing. That may be playing with federal fire, said one drug policy scholar.
"Things are going to get hairier if one of the referendums passes," said UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a former Justice Department official and author of "Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control and Against Excess."
"If the states decide it's within the scope of medical practice, then it's not unreasonable for the feds to get out of the way," he said. "But if they license open sales for nonmedical purposes, you again have a conflict, not only with federal statutes, but with international treaties."
October 19, 2009
Contra Costa Times