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Feds relax medical marijuana policy

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Obama administration has formalized a policy barring the prosecution of medical marijuana patients and their suppliers if they are in violation only of federal law and not of state law.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the new guidelines for federal prosecutors, made official a policy he had signaled in March and which he said the Department of Justice had been following since January when President Obama took office.

The three-page guidelines affect prosecutions in 13 states that have legalized the use of medical marijuana, even though federal law prohibits the sale of the drug for therapeutic purposes. The states in which medical marijuana is legal are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network.

The guidelines mark a switch from that of the previous administration. During the Bush administration, federal agents raided medical marijuana distributors in California, even though that state’s law allowed its distribution and use for such a purpose.

“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 laws to mask activities that are clearly illegal,” Holder said in a written statement Oct. 19. He called the new policy a “sensible approach” in which the department will “effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, R.-Texas, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, criticized Holder’s decision, saying it undermined the enforcement of federal anti-drug laws.

The Obama administration “is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the U.S.,” Smith said in a written release.

“[W]e cannot hope to eradicate the drug trade if we do not first address the cash cow for most drug trafficking organizations — marijuana,” he said.

Supporters of decriminalizing marijuana found hope in the action by the Department of Justice. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said on his organization’s weblog it was “a MAJOR victory for citizens who support” marijuana law reform.

In March, a Southern Baptist public policy specialist responded to Holder’s indication of a reversal of the Bush approach by saying the policy shift “is not the kind of change America needs.”

Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the Obama administration’s decision “to surrender to bad state policies on so-called medicinal marijuana will have disastrous effects. Medicinal marijuana is the Trojan horse of the marijuana decriminalization movement.”

Marijuana has not been shown to be especially helpful in relieving pain, Duke said. Its greater medicinal use likely will lead to increased usage by young people, potential legalization for recreational purposes and widespread drug-related problems, he said.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.

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