This week, the U.S. Justice Department made official what President Obama hinted at on the campaign trail: the federal government will no longer arrest or prosecute people who are legally using or selling medical marijuana in the 13 states that allow it.
Such a dramatic shift from the previous administration’s policy has left local activists in glee — but law enforcement officials say there’s not much to be happy about.
“It does not change really anything in our area,” says Tom Rice, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane. Medical marijuana has been legal in Washington since 1998. “We’ve never targeted a medical marijuana user. We target traffickers. … Sometimes they try to hide behind the medical marijuana law.”
What differentiates a trafficker from a medical marijuana user, Rice would not say, claiming that prosecution guidelines “are internal and I don’t really want to advertise those.”
But it’s not a secret, Rice says, that locally the Justice Department is focused on huge $500 million marijuana crops allegedly harvested by Mexican cartels. “And we continue to fight the B.C. bud,” he says.
Last month, when local police arrested the owners of one medical marijuana dispensary, Change, and threatened other dispensaries in town to lock their doors, the federal government was not involved. The arrests occurred because they weren’t following state law, says county Prosecutor John Grasso.
“They don’t want to use federal resources to go after those medical marijuana patients that are in compliance with state law,” Grasso says. “Well, that’s what I want. … Once you find them in compliance, you don’t want to pursue [charging them].”
It’s that sort of behavior — not pressing charges against people — that local advocates want to encourage.
“I hope that [this] convinces our prosecutors that they should not be involved in chasing people who are providing medicine to sick people,” says John Clark, an attorney who is representing a group of dispensaries known as the Association.
Kevin Oliver, executive director of the local chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), agrees.
“When my director in D.C. tells me to do something, I do it,” he says. “I would think that state and local prosecutors would follow suit.”
Oliver says he hopes this signals the end to marijuana “prohibition.”
“The proverbial camel has gotten its nose a little further under the tent,” he says. “It took 13 states to create this nation on hemp paper. Let’s see what these 13 states can do.”
Oliver, who represents a group that wants the full legalization of marijuana, says the Justice Department took a step toward helping sick people that local law agencies haven’t.
“This is tremendous. This is fantastic. Patients are being heard. State laws are being respected at the federal level,” he says. “But at the local level, patients’ rights are being trampled. It’s unfortunate that they’re not allowing sick people to get their medicine.”