updated 3/18/2009 5:58:01 PM ET 2009-03-18T21:58:01

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.

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That would be a departure from 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.

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.

Advocates and government officials had been waiting since President Barack Obama was sworn into office for a clear signal on what the new president's drug policy would be toward medical marijuana. As a candidate, he repeatedly promised a change in policy in situations in which state laws allow the use of medical marijuana.

Yet shortly after Obama took office, DEA agents raided four dispensaries in Los Angeles, prompting confusion about the government's plans.

Thirteen states have laws permitting medicinal use of marijuana. California is unique among them for the presence of dispensaries, which are businesses that sell marijuana and even advertise their services. Legal under California law, such dispensaries are still illegal under federal law.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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