Dept of Justice Eases Off Medical Pot

Holder: "It will not be a priority to prosecute patients with serious illnesses who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana."

During the 2008 campaign, one of candidate Barack Obama's best applause lines was a promise to restore respect for science when it came to federal policy making.

On Monday, President Obama kept a piece of that promise when his Department of Justice issued a directive ordering agency lawyers not to prosecute individuals who use or prescribe medical marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for that purpose.

"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," explained Attorney General Eric Holder. "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."

In the overall scheme of the drug-policy debate, this is a relatively small -- and cautious -- step.

But for medical-marijuana advocates, the administration's formal embrace of a more responsible approach represents a major breakthrough.

"This is a huge victory for medical-marijuana patients," says Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group. "This indicates that President Obama intends to keep his promise … and represents a significant departure from the policies of the Bush administration."

The jury is in on medical marijuana and the evidence argues for removing barriers -- federal, state and local -- to its use by patients seeking relief from pain and nausea associated with cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis and other debilitating illnesses and conditions.

The Obama administration's move respects that evidence. As such, it represents a clearer embrace of science with regard to drugs and drug policy by a White House than we have seen since the days when Jimmy Carter explored enlightened approaches.

As New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey said Monday, "Today, common sense won out over ideological stubbornness as our nation's law enforcement agency formally adopted a new and well-balanced policy on medical marijuana use. Across the country, individual states have enacted laws that allow individuals who are sick and suffering to use medical marijuana with a doctor's prescription only to have DOJ officials arrest and prosecute them anyway. This was a policy that was misguided and wrong from the start and I'm very pleased that the Obama administration's Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Holder, has put an end to it."

John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent.