The Department of Justice yesterday ordered its lawyers to cease prosecution of people who use or prescribe medical marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for that purpose.
The move is seen by many as an indication that the president is serious about both his campaign promise to restore respect for science in federal policy making and is raising the hopes of many who want a saner drug policy, generally.
"It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesswes or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal," explained Attorney General Eric Holder. "This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the Department has been following since January: effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws."
Although the Justice Department move, when considered against a background of what many consider a host of outrageous drug laws, is a small one, it will end policies that were widely seen as unjust.
People in states that have legalized marijuana for medical use will no longer be subject to arrest, trial and imprisonment under federal laws.
Under federal law cancer patients using marijuana legally prescribed in their states had their property and homes seized and sold off at government auctions.
Some spent many years in prison and among them were people who lost their lives due to violence in jails.
Advocates for a more comprehensive overhaul of drug laws take issue with "zero tolerance" and minimum sentencing laws that allow millions to be jailed for "victimless" offenses, that provide disparate sentences for possessing one form of an illegal substance as opposed to another form (crack cocaine vs. other forms), and result in mass incarceration of people, particularly minorities, for violations that they say represent no threat to society.
For medical marijuana advocates, however, the Obama administration's move constitutes a major change in a positive direction.
"This is a huge victory for medical marijuana patients," says Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group. "This indicates that President Obama intends to keep his promise and represents a significant departure from the policies of the Bush administration."
There are large amounts of evidence that indicate successful relief of cancer-related pain and nausea by patients who use medically prescribed marijuana. The drug has been prescribed also too patients with a wide range of other debilitating diseases including AIDS and multiple sclerosis.
Liberal Democrats in the House, concerned about federal arrests of sick people using the drug, passed a bill earlier this year that requires the Department of Justice to report to the Congress on the administration's position on medical marijuana.
The report is now not required because the new policy clarifies the issue.
"Today," said Rep. Maurine Hinchey, D-N.Y., who sponsored the measure, "those patients no longer have to worry that the medicine they've been legally using in their states will result in them being thrown in jail. Our Justice Department will now let these patients use medical marijuana in accordance with state law and federal prosecutors will instead focus their attention on more pressing legal matters that warrant their time and attention."
The next step in the liberalization process will be to officially legalize the Justice Department directive.
Passage by the House of the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act (HR 2835), introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would accomplish this. The bill formally reschedules cannabis as a Dechedule II drug and eliminates federal authority to prosecute medical marijuana patients or providers in states where it is legal for use.
Even before that happens, however, the directive from the Justice Department will have the effect of increasing the number of states that legalize medical marijuana. Bills to this effect are working their way through many state legislative bodies and there are already a number of referendums on the ballot in various states.
photo: Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic