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NORRIS: In many ways, things have been looking up for supporters of medical marijuana. Opinion polls say an increasing number of Americans favor the idea and medical marijuana is already legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

But as we hear from NPR's Carrie Johnson, the Obama administration has been taking a very different view.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Marijuana has been cropping up all over the country, becoming legal for medical use in places like Montana and Colorado, where the drug's so available that it became a target on "Saturday Night Live" this year.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. SETH MEYERS (Actor): A doctor in Colorado has converted two trailers into mobile doctors' offices to help dispense medical marijuana to patients in rural areas. Oh wait, you know, I'm sorry, I read that wrong. Some guy in Colorado is selling weed out of a trailer. There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Former Director, Office of Drug Control Policy): I'm John Walters. I was director of the Office of Drug Control Policy during the Bush administration.

JOHNSON: Walters says the widespread use of marijuana is no laughing matter.

Mr. WALTERS: It's a dangerous addictive substance. And people are playing games with this and pretending, because they think it's cool sometimes, to not take it seriously.

JOHNSON: But you know who is taking it seriously these days? The Obama administration, which recently lashed out against the drug in three distinct ways. First, on Monday, the White House reported use of marijuana is the highest it's been in eight years. And it argued the drug is addictive and unsafe.

Second, the Drug Enforcement Administration concluded that marijuana has no accepted medical use. So the DEA rejected an effort to reclassify marijuana from a heavily controlled drug, like heroin, to one that can be used more widely.

Finally, the Justice Department has taken a tough line on marijuana, too. Federal prosecutors say they won't go after sick people. But late last month, they warned that big medical marijuana shops aren't exempt from federal prosecution if they sell or distribute the drug, even in states where medical marijuana is legal.

That disappoints Ethan Nadelmann.

Dr. ETHAN NADELMANN (Founder/Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance): Unfortunately, what the Obama administration seems to be doing is trying to scare precisely those state and local authorities who want to design responsible regulations to make sure all of this is properly under control.

JOHNSON: Nadelmann leads the Drug Policy Alliance, which argues for reform of drug laws.

Dr. NADELMANN: You know a lot of this I think is about the Justice Department sort of firing a shot across the bow and saying: Don't go too far.

JOHNSON: Remember that "Saturday Night Live" joke? Well, Colorado now has more than 800 medical marijuana dispensaries and more than 1,000 growers who've registered with state authorities. Medical marijuana is legal there. Lawmakers even developed a database to keep track of the businesses that grow and sell the drug. But distributing and selling marijuana remains a crime under federal law. And federal prosecutors say they won't give growers and sellers a get-out-of-jail-free card.

That's fine with John Walters, who worked on the issues for President Bush.

Mr. WALTERS: Many of these markets are making millions of dollars; they're not non-profits, as they've been declared in other places. They're getting the marijuana from some of the same criminal mafias in Mexico that are killing people daily.

JOHNSON: Groups of criminals then ship marijuana into the U.S. through secret tunnels, like one authorities found last winter near San Diego. The passageway was almost half a mile long, tricked out with electricity and special ventilation systems.

No one in the U.S. is surprised prosecutors are cracking down on those big networks. But Nadelmann, of the Drug Policy Alliance, says he wonders about all the rest.

Dr. NADELMANN: The question is going to be, what happens with the hundreds, and it may now even be in the thousands, of dispensaries that are not operating at that large scale?

JOHNSON: In the last few months, the DEA has conducted smaller raids of medical marijuana shops in Seattle, West Hollywood and Helena, Montana, all states where the drug is now legal for patients.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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