In a sharp departure from previous federal policy, the U.S. Department of Justice has softened its stance on medical cannabis. In a memo issued in October, the Justice Department told U.S. Attorneys that they should not expend resources prosecuting medical cannabis patients and their caregivers in states that have adopted laws on medical use.
The memo’s tacit recognition of both the legitimate medical applications of cannabis and the rights of patients whose doctors advise them to use it marks a policy reversal from previous administrations, which have spent the past 13 years undermining state medical cannabis laws. The change makes good on a campaign promise of President Barack Obama, who said he sympathized with cannabis patients and opposed using federal resources to interfere with state medical cannabis programs.
The memo came shortly after ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer, Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson and Special Advisor David Krahl, Ph.D. met with Justice Department officials in Washington D.C. and explained the need for a written directive.
“Medical marijuana patients and advocates have worked hard for this victory,” said Sherer. “We’re grateful that President Obama intends to keep his promise not to undermine state medical marijuana laws, but we need a comprehensive national policy that promotes research and protects all patients.”
While President Obama had said on the campaign trail that he would end the raids, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) actions continued as Attorney General Eric Holder, went through the confirmation process, including four coordinated raids in Los Angeles on the day Holder was sworn in.
Following those raids in early February, a White House spokesman reiterated President Obama’s intention to implement a new policy. Three weeks later, Attorney General Holder, appearing at a news conference with the DEA’s administrator, said the campaign promise “is now American policy.”
ASA had sought a written statement of that policy to guide federal prosecutors and judges. U.S. Attorneys in California and elsewhere had said that it would be business as usual with prosecuting medical cannabis cases until they were told to stop.
Some federal judges have recently balked at imposing federal prison sentences and have sought clarification from the Justice Department about how the new policy affects federal defendants who complied with state law. While the memo states that the new policy does not change federal law or alter the rules for federal marijuana trials, where evidence of medical necessity or compliance with state law is routinely excluded as irrelevant, advocates hope it will affect current federal prosecutions.
“The change of direction is what’s most important,” said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford. “This memo gives prosecutors a reason to think twice and judges a chance to eliminate prison time.”
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia, with a total population of more than 78 million Americans, have enacted medical cannabis laws.