WASHINGTON - Attorney General Eric Holder signaled a change on medical marijuana policy Wednesday, saying federal agents will target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state law.
That would be a departure from the policy of the Bush administration, which targeted medical marijuana dispensaries in California even if they complied with that state's law.
"The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," Holder said in a question-and-answer session with reporters at the Justice Department.
Medical marijuana advocates in California welcomed the news, but said they still worried about the pending cases of those already in court on drug charges.
California law permits the sale of marijuana for medical purposes, though it still is against federal law.
Holder did not spell out exactly who no longer would face the prospect of raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration. But he was quick to add that law enforcement officers will target anyone who tries to "use medical marijuana laws as a shield" for other illegal activity.
"Given the limited resources that we have, our focus will be on people, organizations that are growing, cultivating substantial amounts of marijuana and doing so in a way that's inconsistent with federal and state law," the attorney general said.
WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Wednesday outlined a shift in the enforcement of federal drug laws, saying the administration would effectively end the Bush administration’s frequent raids on distributors of medical marijuana.
Speaking with reporters, Mr. Holder provided few specifics but said the Justice Department’s enforcement policy would now be restricted to traffickers who falsely masqueraded as medical dispensaries and “use medical marijuana laws as a shield.”
In the Bush administration, federal agents raided medical marijuana distributors that violated federal statutes even if the dispensaries appeared to be complying with state laws. The raids produced a flood of complaints, particularly in California, which in 1996 became the first state to legalize marijuana sales to people with doctors’ prescriptions.
Graham Boyd, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union drug law project, said Mr. Holder’s remarks created a reasonable balance between conflicting state and federal laws and “seem to finally end the policy war over medical marijuana.” He said officials in California and the 12 other states that have authorized the use of medical marijuana had hesitated to adopt regulations to carry out their laws because of uncertainty created by the Bush administration.
Mr. Holder said the new approach was consistent with statements made by President Obama in the campaign and was based on an assessment of how to allocate scarce enforcement resources. He said dispensaries operating in accord with California law would not be a priority for the administration.
Mr. Holder’s comments appeared to be an effort to clarify the policy after some news reports last month interpreted his answer to a reporter’s question to be a flat assertion that all raids on marijuana growers would cease. Department officials said Mr. Holder had not intended to assert any policy change last month but was decidedly doing so on Wednesday.
Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, said Mr. Holder was telling the Drug Enforcement Administration that it should leave legitimate growers of medical marijuana untouched. “The message from the Bush Justice Department was ‘watch out — we have the authority to go after everybody,’ ” he said.