The Obama administration inched toward a more sensible policy on marijuana Monday when Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. ordered federal law enforcement agencies not to devote scarce resources to prosecuting patients and suppliers acting in accordance with state laws that allow medicinal use of the drug.
The new guidelines, outlined in a memorandum to all U.S. attorneys, signal a 180-degree turn from the Bush administration's disdain for the medical marijuana movement. Cannabis is legal, under controlled conditions, in 13 states, yet federal law forbids the drug under the questionable premise that it has no medical value whatsoever.
Unfortunately, Holder didn't go far enough. If it is imprudent for the Justice Department to squander its limited time, personnel and money prosecuting cancer and glaucoma patients in some states, then the guidelines should be applicable to all 50. The administration shouldn't pick and choose states in which to enforce federal law.
That said, the federal energy that has been spent criminalizing the behavior of genuinely ill people who have found relief by using marijuana has been an enormous waste. The flow of drugs between Colombia, Mexico and the U.S. is a far more urgent concern. As Holder acknowledged in his memo, marijuana distribution is the "single largest source of revenue for Mexican drug cartels." Patients growing their own plants and sharing the produce with others in medical marijuana co-ops are hardly a national threat.
The new guidelines don't provide the comprehensive reforms necessary to bring state and federal policies into alignment. Indeed, they may just produce more confusion. The Justice Department emphasizes that even people who scrupulously follow state laws still could be prosecuted under the law (though such prosecutions are a very low priority), and the new policy offers no protection in court. This confusion isn't likely to end until Congress finally reconsiders restrictive federal laws on medical marijuana.
Nor do the guidelines clarify the situation here in Los Angeles, where Angelenos have embraced California's Compassionate Use Act of 1996 with a fervor that some law enforcement authorities believe is more entrepreneurial than medicinal. Hundreds of storefronts now sell the drug in Los Angeles in ways that City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley believe violate state law. Holder's guidelines merely note that the Justice Department will continue to prosecute those who "unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit."
Californians did not mean to legalize marijuana for recreational use or to create a profitable new venue for drug sales; rather, they removed an impediment for chronically ill people who say cannabis helps them. That's still the goal, and the new federal rules will help us get there.