March 18, 2009
Attorney general signals shift in marijuana policy
Attorney General Eric Holder signalled a change on medical marijuana policy Wednesday, saying federal agents will target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state law. That would be a departure from the policy of the Bush administration, which targeted medical marijuana dispensaries in California even if they complied with that state’s law.
“The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law,” Holder said in a question-and-answer session with reporters at the Justice Department.
Medical marijuana advocates in California welcomed the news, but said they still worried about the pending cases of those already in court on drug charges.
California law permits the sale of marijuana for medical purposes, though it still is against federal law.
Holder did not spell out exactly who no longer would face the prospect of raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration. But he was quick to add that law enforcement officers will target anyone who tries to “use medical marijuana laws as a shield” for other illegal activity.
“Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that’s inconsistent with federal and state law,” the attorney general said.
Advocates and government officials had been waiting since President Barack Obama was sworn into office for a clear signal on what the new president’s drug policy would be toward medical marijuana. As a candidate, he repeatedly promised a change in policy in situations in which state laws allow the use of medical marijuana.
Thirteen states have laws permitting medicinal use of marijuana. California is unique among them for the presence of dispensaries, which are businesses that sell marijuana and even advertise their services. Legal under California law, such dispensaries are still illegal under federal law.
Kris Hermes, a spokesman for national medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, said he welcomed Holder’s perspective.
“It signals a new direction and a more reasonable and sensible direction on medical marijuana policy,” he said.
By DEVLIN BARRETT with
Associated Press writer Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles.