While it's good news that the Obama administration is putting its less aggressive approach to medical marijuana in writing (as Nick Gillespie and Peter Suderman noted earlier today), the ambiguity about which forms of cannabis distribution are legal under California law means the policy shift may not amount to much in practice. Today Attorney General Eric Holder is instructing federal prosecutors in the 14 states where the medical use of marijuana is permitted that prosecuting patients, growers, or distributors who are complying with state law is not a good use of Justice Department resources. That stance, which Holder first described in March, fits pretty well with what President Obama said during his campaign. But it can be reversed at any time, and even if it isn't the Drug Enforcement Administration can still participate in raids on medical marijuana dispensaries that local officials consider illegal. In Los Angeles County, as Brian Doherty noted a couple of weeks ago, that category includes pretty much every dispensary, since District Attorney Steve Cooley takes the position that state law does not permit over-the-counter sales. Officials in other jurisdictions hostile to medical marijuana, such as San Diego, can be expected to agree with that interpretation, even though it contradicts Attorney General Jerry Brown's reading of the law. In recent months, the DEA has joined raids initiated by law enforcement officials in L.A. and San Diego. Until the law is clarified by the courts or the legislature, the federal government will have plenty of opportunities to interfere with the distribution of medical marijuana in California, even when it is going to bona fide patients.
Update: The memo (PDF) leaves substantial wiggle room:
As a general matter [you] 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. 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. On the other hand, prosecution of commercial enterprises that unlawfully market and sell marijuana for profit continues to be an enforcement priority of the Department. To be sure, claims of compliance with state or local law may mask operations inconsistent with the terms, conditions, or purposes of those laws, and federal law enforcement should not be deterred by such assertions when otherwise pursuing the Department's core enforcement priorities.