A Step Toward Sanity on Medical Marijuana

The AP reports that the Justice Department will issue a memo formally establishing a new policy regarding the federal prosecution of marijuana possession and sale in states that have decriminalized medical marijuana.

The Obama administration will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they conform to state laws, under new policy guidelines to be sent to federal prosecutors Monday.Two Justice Department officials described the new policy to The Associated Press, saying prosecutors will be told it is not a good use of their time to arrest people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state laws. . . .

A three-page memo spelling out the policy is expected to be sent Monday to federal prosecutors in the 14 states, and also to top officials at the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The memo, the officials said, emphasizes that prosecutors have wide discretion in choosing which cases to pursue, and says it is not a good use of federal manpower to prosecute those who are without a doubt in compliance with state law. . . .

At the same time, the officials said, the government will still prosecute those who use medical marijuana as a cover for other illegal activity. The memo particularly warns that some suspects may hide old-fashioned drug dealing or other crimes behind a medical marijuana business.

In particular, the memo urges prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases which involve violence, the illegal use of firearms, selling pot to minors, money laundering or other crimes.

As I’ve noted on The Corner, assuming this is an accurate account of the guidelines, this is a positive step toward a more rational drug control policy and greater respect for state-level policymaking.

The Justice Department has to set prosecutorial priorities, as there are more federal crimes on the books than federal prosecutors can ever hope to prosecute.  The aim should be to focus federal resources in those areas where there is a distinct federal interest, or where the federal government has a comparative advantage of state and local law enforcement.  Where federal law conflicts with state law, prohibiting activities state laws allowed, federal efforts should still focus on those instances of alleged lawbreaking where there is a distinct federal interest, including spillover effects on neighboring jurisdictions.

The federal government has a legitimate interest in controlling interstate drug trafficking, but no particular interest in prosecuting those who seek to provide medical marijuana to local residents pursuant to state law.  So it only makes sense for the Justice Department to tell federal prosecutors to focus their efforts on those who are not in compliance with state law, such as those who use medical marijuana distribution as a cover for other illegal activities, interstate drug trafficking in particular.  California should be free to set its own marijuana policy, but the federal government retains an interest in preventing California’s choice from adversely affecting neighboring states.

Ideally, the federal government would treat marijuana like alcohol, retaining a federal role in controlling illegal interstate trafficking but leaving each state entirely free to set its own marijuana policy, whether it be prohibition, decriminalization, or somewhere in between.  Fourteen states have already decriminalized medical marijuana to some degree.  Were the federal government to allow states even greater autonomy, I suspect more would follow. I don’t expect the Obama Administration to promote such legislation, but it would represent the proper approach to marijuana use, medical and otherwise.  Nonetheless, the new guidelines appear to be a step in the right direction.

UPDATE: The memo is now available on the DOJ site in HTML and PDF.