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Medical marijuana no longer a priority for federal prosecution

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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new medical marijuana prosecution guidelinesThe Obama administration announced today that people buying and selling marijuana for state-condoned medical uses should not be targeted for federal arrest or prosecution.

Marijuana is legal in more than a dozen states for some prescribed medical uses—such as pain reduction or treatment for glaucoma. It is still, however, illegal under federal law and had been treated as such during the Bush administration, which encouraged federal pursuit of people who used or distributed marijuana in accordance with state laws that permitted it.

The announcement, made today in a memo from Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, indicates that the new recommendations largely arise to trim Department of Justice workloads and "does not ‘legalize’ marijuana." Accordingly, "prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law…is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources," the memo stated.

The change in enforcement does not alter the government’s position on other possession and distribution cases. As the memo made clear, "Congress has determined that marijuana is a dangerous drug, and the illegal distribution and sale of marijuana is a serious crime."

The states that permit some medical marijuana use include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The Justice Department memo comes soon after an announcement that Los Angeles would begin cracking down on its 1,000-odd marijuana dispensaries, many of which may illegally be making a profit, The New York Times reported.

In the research field, medical marijuana has also had its fair share of obstacles. Earlier this year, a request to open a lab dedicated to studying possible applications for medical pot use was denied by the Drug Enforcement Administration. One lab, however, called the Marijuana Project at the University of Mississippi, has been cultivating the plant for study for more than 40 years.

Image courtesy of Caveman 92223 via Flickr


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  1. 1. chriswininger 2:26 pm 10/19/2009

    Rasta Skull Say: Legalize It Man!

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  2. 2. Jcloomis 3:12 pm 10/19/2009

    I agree with everything but "marijuana is a dangerous drug". It is not dangerous in any way! (unlike alcohol which is extremely harmful and dangerous)

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  3. 3. Mr.Tie 3:54 pm 10/19/2009

    Well, as dangerous as smoke inhalation can be, but ya alcohol has far more adverse effects. But if you really want to compare it to a highly addictive and dangerous substance that is legal, take a look at good ol’ high fructose corn syrup and sugar…

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  4. 4. fb36 8:11 pm 10/19/2009

    Prosecution of people even where it is legal under state law is just amazing!
    Maybe federal agencies should focus more on catching terrorists instead!

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  5. 5. fb36 10:39 pm 10/19/2009

    To the people still wondering why 9/11 could not be prevented, here is a clue!

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  6. 6. kevino819 10:33 am 10/20/2009

    "prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law&is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources"

    How about most arrests related to marijuana possession/consumption fitting into this?

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  7. 7. rockjohny 2:44 pm 10/20/2009

    With Texas toying with the idea of seccession, maybe the balance of power is swinging towards the states and this is a reflection of that.

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  8. 8. doctor02 3:18 pm 10/20/2009

    How much money is ‘wasted’ by federal authorities on issues such as medical marijuana? The obesity epidemic is upon us and the resulting cardiovascular problems will cost more than we dare imagine. The federal government has essentially abandoned support for basic research. We need to lead in the war on global warming using good old American ingenuity rather than seeing how many pot smokers we can jail. The government should and must develop a set of priorities – before they waste the entire budget.

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  9. 9. Hermit 4:17 pm 10/20/2009

    Marijuana is not much more "dangerous" than caffeine, a drug we put in kid’s soda pop. Caffeine causes more dependency, has a higher tolerance effect and more withdrawal effects than marijuana. Marijuana is more intoxicating than caffeine, or tobacco, but far less than heroin, cocaine or legal alcohol.

    So why is it illegal? Marijuana was made the focus of Nixon’s War On Drugs as a tool to sidestep the civil rights of young Viet Nam War protesters. There was no documented threat to health or safety. Reagon turned the WOD into a culture war after it became accepted as a powerful and effective tool to control many other counter-culture and minority groups.

    Today, we are stuck with the WOD because of a combination of mean spirited sadists and embarressed citizens who have supported them for so long. It looks like we have an opportunity to grow up and I hope SA will be instrumental.


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  10. 10. sparcboy 9:44 am 10/21/2009

    Marijuana and many other currently illegal drugs should be legalized. The illegal drug market results in thousands of deaths and virtually world wide corruption of governments and law enforcement. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent each year fighting the market.

    Legalizing drugs would introduce a greater degree of control, create an enormous tax revenue source, reduce corruption and take billions of dollars out of the pockets of the pathetic excuses for humans drug lords.

    Highly addictive drugs that quickly fry the brain, such as meth, would necessarily need to be illegal. The solution to reducing their influence would be long-term prison sentences for users and life imprisonment or even the death penalty for dealers. This would encourage the majority of users to stick with legal drugs.

    When alcohol was outlawed in the U.S., the same types of violence and corruption now seen in the illegal drug market ensued. Once it was made legal again, the violence and corruption ceased.

    It is simply a matter of trade-offs. Millions of people are currently addicted to these drugs and that will likely not change. And there will be deaths resulting from over-dose and DUI, just as there is now. The primary difference will be the world-wide reduction in violence, illegal drug market funded gangs and government corruption. Governments will have a tax source creating billions of dollars revenue, instead of wasting it fighting the illegal drug market. Billions of dollars produced for the illegal weapons trade and terrorist funding will virtually cease. Also, portions of cites, and even entire cities like Ciudad Juarez, will be returned to the citizens so they can live in peace.

    The current method is simply not working.

    Alternatively, I prefer the sci-fi, or hopefully near future version, where humans have perfected genetic manipulation to the point where every human being has an IQ that would make Einstein look slow, and consequently no one is stupid enough to do drugs in the first place.

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  11. 11. Hermit 11:58 am 10/21/2009

    Sparcboy said, "Marijuana and many other currently illegal drugs should be legalized. The illegal drug market results in thousands of deaths and virtually world wide corruption of governments and law enforcement. Billions upon billions of dollars are spent each year fighting the market."

    But then he added. "Highly addictive drugs that quickly fry the brain, such as meth, would necessarily need to be illegal."

    Not only does the second statement completely reverse the first, meth doesn’t "fry the brain." It is a legal pharmaceutical and can be prescribed by MD’s. Air Force pilots have been given it for long flights in armed nuclear bombers and the President of the United States has used it, with his advisers, during national emergencies. I knew numerous all-A Honors College and graduate students who used it very successfully to study.

    Sparcboy started out well but I think he fell into the same gullibility trap that has kept the WOD going all these decades. It doesn’t sound like Sparcboy has any experience with meth and it does sound like he is probably reacting to the propaganda he has heard all his life (but I may be wrong and please set me straight if I am, Sparcboy.) I think he’s on the right track about prohibitions and made good observations about it’s effects, but we need to get past the good-vs.-evil drugs. I hope people come to realize that there are neither good nor evil drugs, just more and less powerful ones.

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  12. 12. sparcboy 2:10 pm 10/21/2009

    Hermit. First, I said "Marijuana and many". I did not say "all" which would have included meth.
    Second, thanks for the education on meth. I do know it is a legal pharmaceutical, but used with that condition, it is not illegal. Sorry for using the blatantly non-scientific/medical phrase "fry the brain". However, I have seen brain scans of people who were addicted the meth and they have lost a significant portion of brain mass.

    Call me old-fashioned, square, a fuddy-dud, what-ever, but I currently have no experience with any illegal drugs. When I was in college, using drugs to enhance studying was virtually unknown, and most people who did do a lot of drugs, including alcohol, usually didn’t last very long in college.

    To be honest, I am curious about ecstasy, but only because I know it is very safe. Also, I have read extensively on ibogaine and am very curious about it as well. Think it will be legal one day?

    Hermit, thanks for the reasoned critic of my opinion…..

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  13. 13. Hermit 4:25 pm 10/21/2009

    Sparcboy. Thanks for your courteous reply, it’s nice to talk with a civilized adult.

    Regarding meth, I well understand brain scans and the damage long-term, high dose meth use can do (I did brain implants in a lab.) But that’s true of alcoholics’ brains as they’ve been shrunk too. In fact, out of all the wild drugs and sex in my department at college in the late 60′s, there were only 2 deaths I knew of and both were alcohol caused – liver sclerosis. (One was my Department Head.) I also was acquainted with 2 killed on a motorcycle – alcohol involved. These are both dangerous, powerful drugs so we need better training in how to use them than Nancy Reagan’s "Just Say No" program.

    We didn’t evolve culturally to handle the dangerously powerful things in our environments today – guns, credit cards, drugs, casinos, fast vehicles – and only get training when we have to work with responsible professionals, like when sky-diving. The rest is left to trial-and-error or mythology, and neither is very effective so we see lots of errors: Half of people carrying credit card charges, half of births unplanned, high violence, alcohol and drug related death rates. I think we need real education in more than just sex.

    It was also refreshing to hear of your candid interest in ecstasy. I think it, LSD and psilocybin, have great potentials to offer help for terminal patients to die peacefully and to sooth traumatic stress. But they can also greatly enrich the experience of living when we are psychologically healthy. I hope you get to try it and I do think it will be legal some day.

    I am only vaguely familiar with ibogaine and have never tried it. What caught your attention to make you curious? Now I’m curious…

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  14. 14. sparcboy 8:13 am 10/22/2009

    Ibogaine…somewhere years ago I read about it being used for psychiatric purposes for patients having difficulty remembering much of their childhood. I haven’t researched it in years and it was not well researched, but as I remember, apparently it either blocks the action of repression or opens up the paths to remembering, believed of course to be on the chemical side.

    And ditto the
    People who had used it related details of being able to see in crystal clear detail episodes of their childhood they had absolutely no recollection of, much like a near death experience where your entire life flashes before your eyes.
    Anyway, that sounds fascinating to me. Who knows what is locked in our minds.

    And ditto the "Thanks for your courteous reply, it’s nice to talk with a civilized adult."

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  15. 15. Hermit 12:44 pm 10/22/2009

    sparcboy. It sounds like we may have some points of view in common and I would like to continue this discussion but fear it is straying from the topic of the article. I would sum my comments here, so far, by saying 1) The WOD, especially on marijuana, looks like a bully and propaganda act that is given its credibility by the childish behavior emitted by a minority of users, and 2) Many "recreational" drugs can have very positive, and deep, effects and are far safer than alcohol.

    I am still willing to talk with you more here but hope it is not off track from the article. I guess they’ll let us know.

    So, have you heard of the very common garden plant, salvia? Someone found that if you dry it and smoke it you get a mild, short psychedelic experience – nothing wild or ecstatic, but rather serious and inward looking, as I have heard. I tried a little but not enough to get much effect.

    It’s easy to acquire, though, as it grows in many, many gardens and is a very common flower that you can get at any greenhouse in the spring or from catalogs anytime. Curious? Well, legislators across the country are tripping over each other trying to be first to make it illegal when they heard people were using it to get "high." Funny. No hospitalizations, deaths, violence or any other problems have emerged, but getting "high" is evil, all by itself.

    BTW, I’ve noticed tobacco is only quasi-legal anymore and the WHO is conducting a world wide campaign to reduce (stop?) alcohol consumption. I don’t drink and hate tobacco smoke, but I support other people’s rights to use these drugs, and only ask that they use their heads too. My support includes treatment and research for lung cancer and alcoholism. And, I know either of these two drugs, alone, kills, maims and costs magnitudes more than all illegal recreational drugs put together. But, I support free choice.

    Have you read, "Smoke and Mirrors" by Dan Baum? It’s an in-depth history of the WOD up to the mid 90′s. I highly recommend it for clearly reporting the etiology of this pogrom.


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  16. 16. Michael Hanlon 10:58 pm 10/24/2009

    Who’d have thunk? A Socialist Big Government President ackowledging States Rights! And also taking the politics out of pain and our attempts to combat it.

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