Pubdate: Tue, 20 Oct 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A01, Front Page
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: Carrie Johnson, Washington Post Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Marijuana - Medicinal)


Attorney General Says Prosecuting Such Cases 'Will Not Be a Priority'

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed federal prosecutors 
Monday to back away from pursuing cases against medical marijuana 
patients, signaling a broad policy shift that drug reform advocates 
interpret as the first step toward legalization of the drug.

The government's top lawyer said that in 14 states with some 
provisions for medical marijuana use, federal prosecutors should 
focus only on cases involving higher-level drug traffickers, money 
launderers or people who use the state laws as a cover.

The Justice Department's action came days after the Senate's 
second-highest-ranking Democrat introduced a bill that would 
eradicate a two-decade-old sentencing disparity for people caught 
with cocaine in rock form instead of powder form. Taken together, 
experts say, the moves represent an approach favored by President 
Obama and Vice President Biden to put new emphasis on violent crime 
and the sale of illicit drugs to children. Legislation that would 
cover a third administration commitment, to support federal funding 
of needle exchanges, is moving through the House.

The announcement set off waves of support from advocacy groups that 
have long sought to relax the enforcement of marijuana laws. But some 
local police and Republican lawmakers criticized the change, saying 
it could exacerbate the flow of drug money to Mexican cartels, whose 
violence has spilled over the Southwestern border.

In a statement, Holder asserted that drug traffickers and people who 
use firearms will continue to be direct targets of federal 
prosecutors, but that, on his watch, "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."

The turnaround could pave the way for Rhode Island, New Mexico and 
Michigan to put together marijuana-distribution systems for residents 
of those states, according to Graham Boyd, director of the Drug Law 
Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Advocates say 
marijuana use can help alleviate pain and stimulate appetite in 
patients suffering from cancer, HIV-AIDS and other ailments. But the 
American Medical Association since 2001 has held firm to a policy 
opposing marijuana for medical purposes.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, which is more than three decades 
old, marijuana remains within the category of drugs most tightly 
restricted by the government. Donna Lambert, who is awaiting criminal 
trial in San Diego County Superior Court for allegedly providing 
medical marijuana to another patient, injected a note of skepticism 
into Holder's announcement. In an interview, Lambert noted that 
senior administration officials had made public comments this year in 
line with the Justice Department policy, only to have law enforcement 
agents, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, take part in 
raids soon afterward.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said 
he and other advocates will watch closely whether federal agents 
refuse to participate in raids or send other signals to district 
attorneys in the states that allow some medical use of marijuana.

Americans for Safe Access, which supports medical marijuana programs 
nationwide, estimated that during the Bush administration federal 
authorities conducted 200 raids in California alone. A 2005 U.S. 
Supreme Court case made clear that the federal government has the 
discretion to enforce federal drug laws even in states that had 
approved some relaxation of marijuana statutes for sick patients.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, at a daily briefing in 
Washington, declined to address "what states should do" in response 
to the Justice Department guidance. But Gibbs said that the president 
since January had outlined his medical marijuana policy and that the 
Justice Department memo, signed by Deputy Attorney General David W. 
Ogden, helped to fill in the details.

The administration stopped far short Monday of endorsing wholesale 
marijuana legalization, frustrating some activists. At the 
libertarian Cato Institute, official Tim Lynch described the war on 
drugs as a "grand failure." He exhorted the White House to take "much 
bolder steps to stop the criminalization of drug use more generally."

In the three-page memo, Ogden made clear that the department is not 
creating a new legal defense for people who may have violated the 
Controlled Substances Act. Instead, the memo is intended to guide 
prosecutors on where to train their scarce investigative resources.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police "strongly believes 
that the federal government must continue to play a central role in 
the investigation and prosecution of . . . traffickers, dispensary 
operators, and growers," said Meredith Mays, a spokeswoman for the group.

Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Judiciary 
Committee, said the Justice Department guidelines "fly in the face of 
Supreme Court precedent and undermine federal laws that prohibit the 
distribution and use of marijuana."

He added: "We cannot hope to eradicate the drug trade if we do not 
first address the cash cow for most drug-trafficking organizations -- 

The cocaine bill is still pending in the Senate, although advocates 
say its prospects are stronger now than over the past decade. The 
sponsor, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), said in an interview last 
week that he was working to enlist GOP co-sponsors to ease the bill's passage.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake