A collective sigh of relief or was that the long exhale of bong
hits? no doubt followed Monday’s announcement from Attorney General
Eric Holder Jr. that federal prosecutors will not go after medical
marijuana users who abide by state laws governing the drug’s use for
legitimate treatment purposes.
“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
accompanying the release of the new policy guidelines.
The announcement codified a major policy shift from the Bush
Administration, which aggressively pursued medical marijuana users and
distributors in states that had relaxed their drug laws to allow patients
with certain conditions including glaucoma and AIDS to
use marijuana to ease their symptoms. Fourteen states now make
allowances for medical marijuana use, including California, Colorado,
Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico and Oregon.
Holder had described the broad outlines of the policy in March, but
Monday’s announcement represented the official Administration
position, laying out the policy in a memorandum from Deputy Attorney
General David W. Ogden to U.S. Attorneys.
Holder made clear that the department would not turn a blind eye to
those who use medical marijuana laws as a fig leaf for illegal use,
saying that traffickers exploiting the laws should still expect to be
pursued. “We will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of
compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly
illegal,” Holder said.
The announcement sparked a range of reactions. Calvina Fay, executive
director of the Drug Free America Foundation, gave little weight to
the announcement, saying that the policy has essentially been in place
since early this year. An opponent of medical marijuana laws, she said
the policy may provide “free rein” to prosecutors previously unsure of
whether they should prosecute those who used medical marijuana laws as a
smoke-screen for trafficking, which she would support.
“We think they should be even more aggressive, and we could have said
the same thing about the previous administration, too. We think the
dispensaries should be shut down – all of them should be
shut down, and they should be shut down yesterday,” she tells TIME.
In contrast, NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws and a leading proponent of legalization, called the
move a “major victory” for those seeking drug law reforms. Tim Lynch,
director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the libertarian Cato
Institute, says the new policy announcement was a significant step
that was “long overdue.”
“The memorandum is a recognition that they have got to deploy or
employ these resources in a rational and an effective way, and using
police time to arrest people who are ill and are using marijuana for
medical purposes is a gross misallocation of resources,” he says.
He pointed out another dividend, this one political: to help the
Administration draw a clear distinction with its predecessor for the
benefit of left-leaning Obama supporters angered with the continuing
war in Afghanistan and the renewal of the U.S. Patriot Act.
“This may be an attempt to show, look there are differences, we are
reversing some of the policies and priorities of the Bush justice
department,” he says,” and this is an example of that.”
See a TIME cover on marijuana.