President Barack Obama had promised as a presidential candidate, and reaffirmed soon after taking office, that his administration would take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana and let states chart their own course.
But the memo to local U.S. attorneys, quietly issued June 29 by Deputy Attorney General James Cole, said, there has been "an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes."
As a result, the memo said, "persons who are in the business of cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana, and those who knowingly facilitate such activities, are in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, regardless of state law." Enforcement of that federal law, he added, "remains a core priority."
Medical marijuana advocacy groups say that contradicts Obama's pledges in October 2009 to let states set their own policies.
They also accuse the administration of violating its stated policies with frequent raids on suppliers in the 16 states with such medical marijuana laws, and more recently with warnings to officials in at least 10 states that they could face prosecution if they authorized dispensaries to sell pot to patients.
They said Cole's memo comes close to repudiating Obama's long-standing promise. The memo denies that, insisting that the Justice Department hadn't abandoned the policy that Cole said was intended to spare seriously ill patients and their caregivers from prosecution.
But Steph Scherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, which describes itself as the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, said the administration is claiming to respect patients' rights to use marijuana while "denying them the means to use it legally."
"It is disingenuous of the Obama administration to say it is not attacking patients while obstructing the implementation of local and state medical marijuana laws," Scherer said in a statement.
Because federal prosecutions would disrupt state-approved channels for supplying marijuana to patients, "the only entity benefiting from President Obama's stance on this is organized crime," said Tom Angell, spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates drug decriminalization.
In 1996, California's voters approved a law to allow patients to grow their own marijuana or obtain it from caregivers but did not expressly authorize other sources of supply. Pot dispensaries operate under local regulation but have faced periodic raids from federal authorities, who describe them as profiteering drug dealers.
The administration's warnings to officials in other states have had an impact, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access.
He cited threats of federal prosecution that led Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire to veto a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana dispensaries, and prompted Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee to shelve plans to license dispensaries under a 2009 state law.
But Hermes said Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed a law in May that legalized medical marijuana and state-regulated distribution centers. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin brushed off federal prosecutors' warnings and approved four dispensaries for marijuana patients in June.
"We need local and state officials to stand up and not buckle to intimidation," Hermes said.
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