Jacob Sullum

This week's memo, which White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says merely describes what "has been administration policy since the beginning of this administration in January," helps explain these apparent inconsistencies. It tells federal prosecutors in the 14 states that recognize cannabis as a medicine they "should not focus federal resources ... on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana."

In California especially, that phrasing leaves a lot of wiggle room for federal meddling. Last fall, the California Supreme Court rejected the idea that medical marijuana suppliers are legal as long as their customers designate them as "primary caregivers." Patients who are not up to growing marijuana on their own can still organize as "collectives" or "cooperatives," but local officials disagree with state officials and each other about what that means.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, for example, maintains that state law does not permit over-the-counter sales, which would make virtually all of the 800 or so medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles illegal.

Cooley's position may be welcomed by the DEA and like-minded officials in jurisdictions such as San Diego, but it conflicts with the views of more cannabis-tolerant officials in places such as Oakland and San Francisco. It also contradicts guidelines issued last year by California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who says patient collectives may charge for marijuana, as long as they do not take in more revenue than is necessary to cover their overhead and operating expenses.

Until the law is clarified by the courts or the legislature, the federal government will have plenty of opportunities to continue interfering with the distribution of medical marijuana.

Jacob Sullum

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