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California voters approved the use of marijuana prescribed for medical purposes in 1996, yet the possession, cultivation and use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. There is no common ground between these two positions, and the Drug Enforcement Administration has relentlessly enforced the federal government's prerogative to supersede state law. Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest advocacy group for medical marijuana, estimates that 200 dispensaries across the country were raided in just the last two years, and scores of people are awaiting trial or have been incarcerated. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised that the raids would stop if he won, but they continued, the most recent in Northern California two days after his inauguration.
So when Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. affirmed last week that it was no longer the Justice Department's policy to raid dispensaries, it was cause for celebration by patients, doctors and advocates in the 13 states with medical marijuana laws, and it offered the hope that the Obama administration will devise a policy that takes state laws into consideration.
Of course, backing off the raids creates new legal conundrums. For example, more than 100 people have been arrested, prosecuted and/or imprisoned, some for up to 20 years, for doing what the federal government now says it will ignore: running a dispensary or purchasing marijuana from one. How will the Justice Department proceed in these cases? The Bush administration also threatened the 300 or so California landlords who lease to dispensaries with prosecution and asset foreclosure if they did not evict tenants. Will these intimidation tactics cease?
Stopping the raids is certainly worthwhile -- there are better uses for the DEA's limited resources than locking up people who sought relief from the ravages of, say, chemotherapy -- but as a long-term policy, it is unworkable. Last year, California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown issued guidelines for the cultivation, dispensing and use of medical marijuana. A review of them would be a good place for the Obama administration to start when crafting its own. The country needs a comprehensive policy, not just a wink and a nod.