U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that the Justice Department has no plans to prosecute pot dispensaries that are operating legally under state laws in California and a dozen other states -- a development that medical marijuana advocates and civil libertarians hailed as a sweeping change in federal drug policy.
In recent months, Obama administration officials have indicated that they planned to take a hands-off approach to such clinics, but Holder's comments -- made at a wide-ranging briefing with reporters -- offered the most detailed explanation to date of the changing priorities toward the controversial prosecutions.
The Bush administration targeted medical marijuana distributors even in states that had passed laws allowing use of the drug for medical purposes by cancer patients, those dealing with chronic pain or other serious ailments. Holder said the priority of the new administration is to go after egregious offenders operating in violation of both federal and state law, such as those being used as fronts for drug dealers.
"Those are the organizations, the people, that we will target," the attorney general said.
Medical marijuana activists and civil libertarians embraced Holder's latest statement as the most forceful affirmation of what long had been anticipated: a landmark turnaround from the Bush administration's policy of zero tolerance for cannabis use by patients.
"Whatever questions were left, today's comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington. He's sending a clear message to the DEA," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Cultivating, using and selling medical marijuana are allowed in some instances under California law. But such actions are outlawed entirely under federal law, which supersedes those of the states. A dozen other states have laws similar to California's, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization that supports the legalization of the drug.
In the 13 years since California voters made the state one of the first to legalize medical marijuana, federal officials have won all the major legal battles, including one at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 in which their right to prosecute marijuana sellers was upheld. But supporters of medical marijuana have fought back on the political front, and Holder's announcement is their biggest victory so far.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for Thomas P. O'Brien, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said the office already focused on egregious offenders such as those who sell drugs to minors and people with bogus prescriptions or those who operate away from their approved location.
"In every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law," Mrozek said.
Despite the abundance of medical marijuana dispensaries in Southern California, Mrozek said prosecutors have charged only four operators and their associates in the last seven years.
Obama suggested during the presidential campaign that medical marijuana dispensaries operating within state law would not be subject to prosecution if he were elected.
But soon after his inauguration, the Drug Enforcement Administration raided several dispensaries in the Los Angeles area and near Tahoe, in what appeared to be a continuation of policies enforced under previous administrations. At Wednesday's briefing, his first major sit-down with reporters, Holder was asked if the Justice Department planned to raid any more clinics.
"The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law, to the extent that people do that and try to use medical marijuana laws as a shield for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of the state law," Holder said. "Those are the organizations, the people, that we will target. And that is consistent with what the president said during the campaign."
A Justice Department official confirmed that Holder's comments effectively articulated a formal Obama administration policy of not going after such clinics.
"Before, he didn't really lay out the policy. Today, he stated the policy," said the Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
"If you are operating a medical marijuana clinic that is actually a front, we'll come after you," the official said. "But if you are operating within the law, we are not going to prioritize our resources to go after them."
Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project said he still has some concerns: What happens to dispensary operators caught up in raids during the last days of the Bush policy, and would federal drug agents resist "trumping up" violations to circumvent the Obama administration's edict.
"The devil is going to be in the details of implementation," Mirken said. "I think you have to assume that there are people within the DEA and some in local law enforcement who still don't like medical marijuana and would like to find an excuse to continue making arrests of law-abiding dispensary operators."
Times staff writer Eric Bailey contributed to this report.