Patients prescribed marijuana for medical purposes and their licensed suppliers "will not be a priority" of federal prosecutors in states that have legalized the practice, the Justice Department said Monday.
The guidance from the department came in the form of a three-page memo that directed federal agents to take a hands-off approach to cases in which no state laws are broken.
Prosecutors "should not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana," the memo said.
The memo was sent Monday to federal prosecutors in 14 states that allow at least limited use of medically sanctioned marijuana and to top officials at the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.
Attorney General Eric Holder gave a hint of the new policy in March, when he told reporters then that the policy should be to go after only those people who violate both federal and state 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," Holder said in a statement.
The guidelines do, however, state that federal agents will go after people whose marijuana distribution extends beyond what is permitted under state law or use medical marijuana as a cover for other crimes.
The head of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws said he thinks the new memo is a harbinger of more lenient drug policies to come.
"There have already been invitations made to drug policy groups to meet with the drug policy director, something that hasn't happened in 20 years," NORML's executive director, Allen St. Pierre, said.
The memo urges prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases that involve violence, the illegal use of firearms, selling to minors, money-laundering or involvement in other crimes.
The change in policy is a shift from the Bush administration, when prosecutors arrested medical marijuana distributors in California even though some of them were operating legally under state law.
California's laws are the most permissive. Thirteen other states allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Advocates say marijuana is effective in treating chronic pain and nausea, among other ailments.
Officials said the memo is meant to set priorities for U.S. attorneys in the states that allow medical marijuana but doesn't entirely rule out the possibility of prosecuting a case that is legal on the state level.
From NPR staff and wire service reports