Image: Medical marijuana advocates and users confront police.
Robyn Beck  /  AFP/Getty Images
Medical marijuana advocates and users confront Los Angeles police during a Drug Enforcement Administration raid of a medicial marijuana dispensary on July 25, 2007.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/27/2009 5:42:59 PM ET 2009-02-27T22:42:59

Supporters of programs to provide legal marijuana to patients with painful medical conditions are celebrating Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement this week that the Drug Enforcement Administration would end its raids on state-approved marijuana dispensaries.

Federal raids on medical marijuana distributors continued at least into the second week of Barack Obama’s presidency, when federal agents shut down at least two dispensaries in California on Feb. 3.

Holder was asked about those raids Wednesday in Santa Ana, Calif., at a news conference that was called to announce the arrests of 755 people in a nationwide crackdown on the U.S. operations of Mexican drug cartels. He said such operations would no longer be conducted.

“What the president said during the campaign ... will be consistent with what we will be doing here in law enforcement,” he said. “What (Obama) said during the campaign ... is now American policy.”

Obama indicated during the presidential campaign that he supported the controlled use of marijuana for medical purposes, saying he saw no difference between medical marijuana and other pain-control drugs.

“My attitude is if the science and the doctors suggest that the best palliative care and the way to relieve pain and suffering is medical marijuana, then that’s something I’m open to,” Obama said in November 2007 at a campaign stop in Audubon, Iowa. “There’s no difference between that and morphine when it comes to just giving people relief from pain.”

White House spokesman Nick Shapiro hinted at the policy shift shortly after the California raids, telling The Washington Times that the dispensaries were legal in California and that the Obama administration’s stance was that “federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws.”

Major shift in federal policy
The new policy represents a significant turnabout for the federal government. During the Bush administration, DEA agents shut down 30 to 40 marijuana dispensaries, the agency said.  

The Web site of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy had yet to catch up to the policy shift as of Friday afternoon, and was still prominently featuring a “Medical Marijuana Reality Check” declaring that “marijuana is not considered modern medicine” and arguing that “no animal or human data support the safety or efficacy of smoked marijuana for general medical use.”

Holder’s comments received little notice Wednesday, overshadowed by the news of the drug arrests. But supporters of legalized marijuana seized on them as an important sign of progress in their campaign.

“Holder’s statement marks a dramatic shift in U.S. drug policy and is a major victory for the 72 million Americans who reside in states where the use of medical cannabis is legal,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in a statement.

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Thirteen states allow the cultivation, sale and use of medical marijuana.

Armentano said the shift would add momentum to campaigns in states that are considering their own medical marijuana laws. The New Jersey Senate approved such a bill Monday, and Gov. Jon Corzine said he would sign it if it cleared the state Assembly.

Charles Lynch, who operated a state-approved dispensary in Morro Bay, Calif., before it was raided in 2007, also welcomed the new policy.

“It’s a good thing for California. It’s a good thing for the other 12 states that have medical marijuana laws,” said Lynch, who was convicted in August of federal drug charges.

Lynch could face five years in prison when he is sentenced late next month, but in light of the new federal policy, he said he would appeal his conviction and seek a presidential pardon.

Lynch contended that dispensaries like his were vital for patients in the last stages of a painful illness.

“Having one in your community, wherever that may be, is a good thing because it helps these people that need relief,” he said.

The following NBC stations contributed to this report: KNSD of San Diego; KSBY of San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and WNBC of New York.

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