LOS ANGELES – In a statement released earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal authorities would no longer conduct raids on dispensaries of medical marijuana. This constitutes a shift from previous Justice Department policy, which maintained zero tolerance for marijuana, despite state laws that allowed its sale and use for medical purposes.
Under the Bush administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency conducted scores of raids against marijuana dispensaries in the Los Angeles area. California, along with 12 other states, allows the medical use of marijuana, but these laws have not been recognized on the federal level.
Garrison Courtney, a spokesperson for the DEA, said that the agency had targeted only those dispensaries who abused the state laws by selling to minors, selling marijuana from unsanctioned growers, or selling amounts above the legally allowable limit. Furthermore, an official from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles stated that only four medical marijuana dispensary cases had been prosecuted in the 12 years since the passage of Proposition 215.
That proposition, which was passed in 1996, made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana.
Medically, marijuana is prescribed for cancer and AIDs patients to treat nausea, a common side effect of chemotherapy. It is also used in order to combat weight loss from various illnesses, as well as to alleviate pain.
Proponents of the use of medical marijuana herald this policy shift by the Obama administration as a more pragmatic, and less ideological, view on drug enforcement. Holder’s announcement is a recognition that some state laws may actually take precedence over federal law, a distinct difference from the hardline approach usually taken by Bush administration officials.
It also comes as a relief to the proprietors of the marijuana dispensaries, who have feared being targeted by federal raids. Such raids are not only detrimental to the business themselves, but also result in stiff penalties for the individuals involved, such as Charles Lynch, a dispensary operator who now faces a minimum of five years in prison on several charges related to the sale of medical marijuana.
Other dispensary owners fear that while federal scrutiny might decrease, local and state agencies might step up their investigations. Strict state laws regulate the sale of medical marijuana, but Attorney General Holder’s announcement does signal that dispensaries which are in compliance with those laws no longer need fear interference from federal authorities.