Medical pot users getting a break

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Monday that it would mellow out on prosecuting medical marijuana users in the 14 states in which therapeutic pot smoking is allowed.

Breaking more definitively from the Bush administration, Attorney General Eric Holder formally directed federal prosecutors in medical marijuana states to refocus investigations on heftier targets.

"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," Holder said.

At the same time, Holder stressed that "we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."

The newly clarified policy amplifies earlier Obama administration statements and puts more muscle behind them. The three-page memo sent to selected U.S. attorneys guides priority setting for the White House-appointed prosecutors.

"The proof will be in the pudding," Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of California NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — said of the new policy directive, but "there has already been a substantial tailing off in the number of federal cases."

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama declared that he wouldn't interfere with individual state decisions to permit prescription marijuana use, and Holder previously voiced similar sentiments. Within weeks of Obama's inauguration, though, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided several pot dispensaries in Los Angeles.

Medical marijuana raids have occurred in recent months in San Diego, San Francisco and rural Lake County.

This year's raids resembled earlier Bush administration DEA raids, raising alarms about whether drug enforcement policies really had changed. An unsuccessful 2005 Supreme Court challenge by Oakland resident Angel Raich left federal authorities with the power to prosecute medical marijuana use even in states that permitted it.

"The FDA has never approved marijuana as safe and effective for any medicinal use," the Bush administration's solicitor general, Paul Clement, advised the court in 2005.

McGregor Scott, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said in an interview that the new guidance represented no change from the "practical policy" followed under the Bush administration.

"Without exception, the cases we accepted and prosecuted ... involved violations of both state and federal law," Scott said, adding that "(we) focused on the most egregious offenders who were making millions of dollars selling marijuana."

Stanislaus County resident Deborah Pottle said she hopes the lighter policy will help local patients who find it hard to obtain medically prescribed marijuana. Cities in the county have moratoriums on medical pot dispensaries, forcing patients to travel out of town or grow their own within the parameters of state law.

"When people are going to dispensaries (in the Bay Area) and thinking they're on camera or being watched, it affects their stress level," she said. "It makes them feel uncomfortable to go and get something that helps them cope with a serious illness."

Pottle said she uses marijuana to manage her chronic pain from a bungled spinal operation about 15 years ago. Because local physicians were afraid to write the prescription, she said, she arranges a three-hour trip to a Grass Valley doctor to renew the prescription every year, and a friend obtains marijuana for her at an out-of-town dispensary.

"Physically, I can't take that drive from here to the Bay Area," she said. "We need to start talking again about getting a dispensary in the valley."

Thousands of cards issued

In California, where voters adopted a medical marijuana program in 1996, records show that 24,258 user identification cards have been issued over the past five years. Gieringer, though, estimated that the true number of medical marijuana users in the state is closer to 300,000.

In Washington state, voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 1998 that permits the possession or cultivation of a personal 60-day supply. It's a different system from that of California, where public dispensaries have proliferated.

"There are not the retail storefronts in Washington," noted Martin Martinez, executive director of the Seattle-based Cascadia NORML, adding that the Obama administration appears "a little more supportive" than the Bush administration did.

Administration priorities change

Holder's policy memo is part of the priority setting that happens in every new Justice Department. During the Bush administration, for instance, federal prosecutors were encouraged to pursue child pornography and immigration cases.

Now, individuals "with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen" will not be deemed worthy of prosecution, the policy memo says. Neither are "those caregivers (who) in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law provide such individuals with marijuana."

However, federal raids and prosecutions should continue when other potentially law-breaking circumstances exist, Holder stressed.

The unlawful possession of firearms, "excessive amounts of cash," possession of other controlled substances and questionable financial gains still might provoke prosecution. The policy appears consistent with some high-profile past prosecutions, including a case last year in which Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Ruiz Montes of Modesto were convicted of running a major pot dispensary on McHenry Avenue that earned more than $4.5 million.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.