Pubdate: Mon, 19 Oct 2009
Source: Contra Costa Times (CA)
Copyright: 2009 Bay Area News Group
Author: John Simerman, Contra Costa Times
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


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

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

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." 
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