WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Monday told federal authorities not to arrest or prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers who aren't violating local laws, paving the way for some states to allow dispensaries to provide the drug as relief for some maladies.
The Justice Department's guidelines ended months of uncertainty over how far the Obama White House planned to go in reversing the Bush administration's position, which was that federal drug laws should be enforced even in states like California, with medical marijuana laws on the books.
The new guidelines tell prosecutors and federal drug agents they have more important things to do than to arrest people who are obeying state laws that allow some use or sale of medical marijuana.
"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, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal," Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
Advocates say marijuana helps relieve pain and nausea and stimulates appetite in patients suffering from cancer and some other diseases.
The guidelines clarify what some critics had said was an ambiguous position by the Obama administration, especially in California, where authorities raided numerous clinics and made arrests over the years. Some of those raids followed Obama's inauguration in January, after, as a presidential candidate, he had pledged to stop them.
Holder had telegraphed the change in March.
On Monday, he said the guidelines were adopted, in part, because federal agencies must reserve their limited resources for urgent needs. One priority is countering the violent Mexican drug cartels, which use vast profits from their U.S. marijuana sales to support other criminal activities, the guidelines say.
The Justice Department will continue to prosecute people whose claims of compliance with state and local law conceal operations that are "inconsistent" with the terms, conditions or purposes of those laws, according to Holder and Deputy Atty. Gen. David Ogden.
The guidelines urge authorities to pursue cases involving violence, illegal use of firearms, selling marijuana to minors, excessive financial gains and ties to criminal enterprises.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups welcomed the decision as an important step toward a comprehensive national policy on medical marijuana that will allow states to implement their laws without fear of federal interference.
But many law enforcement advocates, some conservative groups and members of Congress criticized it.
In all, 14 states have medical marijuana laws. But some, such as New Mexico, Rhode Island and Michigan, have been reluctant to create programs lest they be struck down by courts or shut down by federal authorities, said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's California-based Drug Law Reform Project.
Boyd said he hoped the new policy would spur local governments with well-established medical marijuana programs to weed out fly-by-night dispensaries that are in it for the huge potential profits.
"The big news outside of California is that this will get the states off the dime," Boyd said.
In California, he said, it would "clarify the line between what is legal and illegal and reduce some of the chaos that exists, and that's a good thing."
But opponents warned of consequences.
"By directing federal law enforcement officers to ignore federal drug laws, the administration is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the U.S.," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.
He said the decision undermined the administration's plan to attack the Mexican drug cartels, which he said were growing marijuana in U.S. national parks and fueling drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Other states that allow marijuana for medical purposes are Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
California is unusual in allowing dispensaries to sell marijuana and advertise their services.
In Los Angeles, however, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said last week that he would continue to prosecute dispensaries for over-the-counter sales.