Jacob Sullum

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly promised to stop federal interference with state laws that allow the medical use of marijuana. On Monday, the Justice Department seemed to deliver on that promise with a memo telling U.S. attorneys to avoid prosecuting people who use or provide medical marijuana in compliance with state law.

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The new policy sounds a lot better than the Bush administration's refusal to tolerate any deviation from federal law in this area. But because of disagreements about what compliance with state law requires, it may not make much difference in practice.

While campaigning in New Hampshire during the summer of 2007, Obama said "prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users" is "really not a good use of Justice Department resources." In a March 2008 interview with Oregon's Mail Tribune, he said, "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue."

Two months later, when another Oregon paper, Willamette Week, asked Obama whether he would "stop the DEA's raids on Oregon medical marijuana growers," he replied, "I would, because I think our federal agents have better things to do."

Critics of the war on drugs (and consistent advocates of federalism) were therefore disappointed that DEA raids on medical marijuana providers continued after Obama took office. There were five in January and February, all in California, even as the White House affirmed that "federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws."

The mixed signals continued. "The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," Attorney General Eric Holder declared in March. Less than a week later, the DEA raided a dispensary in San Francisco, reportedly because of irregularities associated with the collection of state sales tax (as opposed to violations of state drug laws).

In light of Holder's announcement, a federal judge in Los Angeles delayed the sentencing of Morro Bay dispensary operator Charles Lynch, only to be told by the Justice Department that the case against Lynch was consistent with the new policy. In August, the DEA arrested a medical marijuana patient and grower in Upper Lake, Calif. The DEA also has continued to participate in raids initiated by local officials, hitting two Los Angeles dispensaries in August and 14 San Diego dispensaries last month.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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