U.S. Shifts Stance On Medical Marijuana

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is discouraging federal prosecutors from going after people who comply with state laws on medical marijuana. It's a significant departure from the Bush administration.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

People who are smoking medical marijuana no longer have to fear prosecution under federal law. That's the news from the U.S. Justice Department this morning.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has our story.

ARI SHAPIRO: There were signs that this shift was coming. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama talked about changing drug enforcement policies. And in March, Attorney General Eric Holder said this to reporters.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Attorney General): Our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating, you know, substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that's inconsistent with federal and state law.

SHAPIRO: The key word there is: and. Federal law and state law. Federal law says marijuana is totally illegal, period. But 14 states have laws that allow marijuana for medical purposes. The Bush administration sometimes arrested medical marijuana distributors who were acting legally under state laws. The Obama administration says that's over. Marijuana advocates celebrated what they describe as a major break from the past. Allen St. Pierre is executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Mr. ALLEN ST. PIERRE (Executive Director, NORML): This would break all orthodoxy over the last 40 years. In fact, let's just roll back the clock 10 years, we had then General Barry McCaffrey as the so-called drug czar saying: There is no such thing as medical marijuana.

General BARRY MCCAFFREY (Retired, United States Army): Smoke pot isn't medicine, you know, it's an unknown dose rate. It's carcinogenic. You sort of wonder what's going on here. You know, to what extent is this Cheech and Chong medicine?

SHAPIRO: That was McCaffrey speaking to NPR in 2001. But since then, medical marijuana has proliferated. California alone has more than 2,000 dispensaries. The Purple Heart Patient Center in Oakland has been open for about three years. The floor and the walls are all purple, so is some of the marijuana. A huge cannabis menu on the wall lists varieties and their prices. The manager, Hollis Carr(ph), says he serves more than a 100 patients a day.

Mr. HOLLIS CARR (Manager, Purple Heart Patient Center): Definitely been concerned about being raided, but now it's looking a little better for the industry.

SHAPIRO: He expects a jump in business now that the threat of federal raids is gone.

Mr. CARR: It's just becoming a little more generally accepted, I guess you could say, since our new government is a little bit behind it. Some of those people who are scared to jump out there and take risks are now, you know, a little bit more comfortable with that.

SHAPIRO: Patients said they won't have to look over their shoulders all the time. Jason Wax(ph) smokes medical marijuana for injuries he received in a car accident.

Mr. JASON WAX: I come here because it's pretty close to home, and I can travel right back home without running into the law sometime and being harassed. But, you know, as long as you're legal and it's legal, and you're doing the right things with it and not trying to sell it, having personal use, then, yeah, it's okay.

SHAPIRO: Today's Justice Department memo says prosecutors should continue targeting people who use medical marijuana as a front for other illegal activities. And it says prosecuting drug traffickers is still a top priority. Some observers were surprised to see this change come from the Obama administration. After all, deference to state's rights is generally a Republican platform, not a Democratic one.

But some Republicans in Congress criticize this decision. Lamar Smith of Texas is the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. He said: By directing federal law enforcement officers to ignore federal drug laws, the administration is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the U.S. Marijuana advocates hope he's right.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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Government Issues Medical Marijuana Guidelines

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.

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

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

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