Oct. 19, 2009 -- Angel Raich says she has lived in guilt and fear for the past few years.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor, chronic pain and scoliosis, Raich, 43, says she uses marijuana to help her survive. But having lost multiple court cases, including one in the Supreme Court, the Californian has lived in constant fear that she and others in her position will be arrested by the feds.
But new formal guidelines by the U.S. Department of Justice could change that. In a marked departure from the Bush administration, Attorney General Eric Holder made it clear today that medical marijuana users and dispensaries in states that permit its usage should not be prosecuted.
"I was actually shocked ... absolutely amazed that it happened," an ecstatic Raich told ABC News today. "It's one of the things I wanted to see in my lifetime, that I didn't know I'd see before I die."
California is one of 14 states where it's permissible to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. But even though it's permitted for sale there, it still violates federal law, which bans any use of marijuana. And in the previous administration, authorities targeted medical marijuana sellers under federal laws even if they complied with state laws.
Under the Bush administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration had conducted enforcement operations against a range of dispensaries in California.
In 2005, Raich, who now lives in Orinda, Calif., and two of her suppliers sued then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and took their case to the Supreme Court. But the justices declared that medical marijuana users and their suppliers could be prosecuted for breaking federal drug laws even if they lived in a state such as California.
At the outset of the new administration, Holder discussed a possible policy shift in regards to enforcement against medical marijuana distributors in California, saying that enforcement may only take place against medical marijuana dispensaries that violate both federal and state laws.
The agency today said it will not focus its resources on individuals who are compliant with state laws.
"It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal," Holder said in a statement. "This balanced policy formalizes a sensible approach that the Department has been following since January: effectively focus our resources on serious drug traffickers while taking into account state and local laws."
The new policy is in line with what candidate Barack Obama promised in his campaign. As a presidential candidate, Obama said he would end federal raids on people who used marijuana for medical purposes.
"The Justice Department going after sick individuals using this as a palliative instead of going after serious criminals makes no sense," Obama said in July 2007.
The new formal guidelines reflect that language. "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," states the memo from the Justice Department to U.S. attorneys.
"For example, 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," the memo states.
New Medical Marijuana Guidelines
Proponents of medical marijuana say the new policy is long overdue.
"What you have now, finally, after all these years is a federal government, which is not at war with its own states and not at war with suffering sick people in these states," Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told ABC News. "It is the most positive and significant development on federal medical marijuana policy since the Carter administration."
But opponents have expressed concern that such a policy could also lead to more illegal drug use and sales. According to the Justice Department, marijuana distribution in the United States remains the single largest source of revenue for Mexican cartels.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, expressed disapproval of the new guidelines, saying that it weakens federal enforcement of drug laws.
"The administration's new guidelines directing federal prosecutors to ignore local medical marijuana dispensaries that allegedly operate in compliance with state laws fly in the face of Supreme Court precedent and undermine federal laws that prohibit the distribution and use of marijuana," Lamar said in a statement. "By directing federal law enforcement officers to ignore federal drug laws, the administration is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the U.S. If we want to win the war on drugs, federal prosecutors have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute all medical marijuana dispensaries and not just those that are merely fronts for illegal marijuana distribution."
In March, when Holder first broached the subject, Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley blasted the administration, saying that marijuana use leads to use of harder drugs.
"The first rule of medicine, first do no harm, is being violated by the attorney general by his decision," Grassley said.
Others fear that marijuana dispensaries will also be used to sell drugs to not just medical patients, but to recreational users as well. There's also the question of what will happen to those cases that are already pending in courts.
Citing that the president has said he'd like to change how the cases are handled, one official said the guidelines do not constitute a new policy but rather it gives prosecutors guidance on how to handle cases.
But it does reflect a clear shift away from the previous administration's policies, and some proponents hope it will pave the way for more states to relax their marijuana laws.
"The last couple of years, it's been so hard because I've felt so guilty every time someone got busted. ... I felt guilty because I lost my case in the Supreme Court," said Raich, who will undergo brain surgery later this month. "We have work to do still. What's going to happen to patients in those states where it's not legal? It's bittersweet."
ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.