MONDAY, Oct. 19 (HealthDay News) -- The Obama administration has decided it will no longer prosecute medical marijuana users or suppliers, provided they obey the laws of states that allow use of the drug for medicinal purposes.
The new guidelines, which were to be sent in a Justice Department memo to federal prosecutors on Monday, are designed to give priorities to U.S. Attorneys who are pursuing drug offenders.
"As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your states on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana," the memo states.
During his campaign, President Barack Obama promised to change the government's policy on the use of medical marijuana in those states that allow it. The administration of President George W. Bush had opposed the use of marijuana as medicine.
"This is a huge victory for medical marijuana patients," Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a nationwide medical marijuana advocacy organization, said in a prepared statement.
"This indicates that President Obama intends to keep his promise not to undermine state medical marijuana laws and represents a significant departure from the policies of the Bush Administration," Sherer added. "We will continue to work with President Obama, the Justice Department and the U.S. Congress to establish a comprehensive national policy, but it's good to know that in the meantime, states can implement medical marijuana laws without interference from the federal government."
Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a group that seeks the legalization of marijuana, said: "The federal government, to some degree, has said 'uncle' in acknowledging both the medical utility of cannabis and acknowledging that there is some clear place in the law for states to have the autonomy to allow for marijuana to be used and, quite logically, that there be a source for it."
Currently, 14 states allow use of marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington, according to the Associated Press.
Proponents of medical marijuana contend the drug effectively treats chronic pain and nausea from a variety of diseases and disorders, including cancer and glaucoma.
According to the Justice Department memo, "prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or those caregivers in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law who provide such individuals with marijuana, is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources."
But, the memo adds, the federal government will prosecute people who use medical marijuana as a cover for other illegal activities. The memo warns that "some suspects may hide old-fashioned drug dealing or other crimes behind a medical marijuana business."
The memo, written by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, urges federal prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases that involve violence, the illegal use of guns, selling marijuana to minors, money laundering and other crimes.
And, the memo does not rule out the federal government prosecuting someone whose activities are allowed under state law.
The memo notes that efforts should focus on prosecution of significant marijuana traffickers. "Marijuana distribution in the United States remains the single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels," the memo states.
The new policy is not without its critics, including some federal lawmakers who see it as a weakening in the war against Mexican drug cartels, the AP said.
"We cannot hope to eradicate the drug trade if we do not first address the cash cow for most drug trafficking organizations -- marijuana," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
One health expert said the policy change was good, noting concerns about marijuana should be based on science and not the fear that any drug will be abused.
"I was never sure why there was an issue," said Kenneth W. Goodman, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and co-director of the university's ethics programs. "We have a long track record about making judgments about drugs based on research."
"My view has always been whether you should use opiates or aspirin or antibiotics or marijuana or anything depends on the research," he said. "If there is evidence that shows that something works and it's controlled by physicians, then what's the problem?"
For more on marijuana, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Oct. 19, 2009, memo, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.; Kenneth W. Goodman, Ph.D., professor of medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, co-director, University of Miami ethics programs; Allen St. Pierre, executive director, NORML, Washington, D.C.; Associated Press