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About the “new” federal medical marijuana policy

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By Michelle Malkin  •  October 19, 2009 11:16 AM

Longtime readers will know that I have been very supportive of state initiatives on medical marijuana dating back to my years at the Seattle Times (see here, here, and here).

So, I have no general policy quarrel with this at all. Finally, an Obama policy that officially reduces the role of the federal government. Or so it seems:

Federal drug agents won’t pursue pot-smoking patients or their sanctioned suppliers in states that allow medical marijuana, under new legal guidelines to be issued Monday by the Obama administration.

Two Justice Department officials described the new policy to The Associated Press, saying prosecutors will be told it is not a good use of their time to arrest people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state law…Fourteen states allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The question is: Why is this “news?”

AG Eric Holder announced it back in March:

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.

The “clarifying” memo that will be sent out today, seven months after Holder first announced the “shift,” makes clear that the Obama administration will actually retain the same discretion the Bush administration exercises to prosecute someone whose activities are deemed legal in states that allow medical marijuana use.

A three-page memo spelling out the policy is expected to be sent Monday to federal prosecutors in the 14 states, and also to top officials at the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

The memo, the officials said, emphasizes that prosecutors have wide discretion in choosing which cases to pursue, and says it is not a good use of federal manpower to prosecute those who are without a doubt in compliance with state law.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the legal guidance before it is issued.

“This is a major step forward,” said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This change in policy moves the federal government dramatically toward respecting scientific and practical reality.”

At the same time, the officials said, the government will still prosecute those who use medical marijuana as a cover for other illegal activity. The memo particularly warns that some suspects may hide old-fashioned drug dealing or other crimes behind a medical marijuana business.

In particular, the memo urges prosecutors to pursue marijuana cases which involve violence, the illegal use of firearms, selling pot to minors, money laundering or involvement in other crimes.

And while the policy memo describes a change in priorities away from prosecuting medical marijuana cases, it does not rule out the possibility that the federal government could still prosecute someone whose activities are allowed under state law.

In other words, they will continue Bush-era policies when they find it expedient to do so in the future — but they want praise and obeisance from the Left for paying lip service to Transformative Change now. It’s the Obama way!

***

Meanwhile, the Big Nanny feds continue their power grab over tobacco:

FDA bans flavored cigarettes.

Except menthol, that is:

Because of a loophole written into the law, the FDA banned all flavored cigarettes except menthol. The only flavor sold by Philip Morris, the FDA’s industry ally in passing legislation to allow the ban, just happens to be menthol.

Sold as a way to protect public health, the ban is more flash than substance. At the time he signed the legislation President Obama crowed, “The decades-long effort to protect our children [has] emerged victorious. … Today, change has come.” Change came, but it didn’t do much when it got here.

Menthol is the No. 1 cigarette flavor used by underaged smokers and the most popular among all smokers. A menthol ban would have had many times the impact of banning all other flavors combined.

The menthol exception makes the new regulation particularly toothless among blacks. Mentholated brands are preferred by three-quarters of black smokers. Blacks tend to be more likely to smoke and to smoke more. As a result, blacks suffer a disproportionate share of lung cancer.

Consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to smoke or go hang gliding or eat fattening ice cream, but even by the standards of nanny state advocates this rule is ludicrous. There is no logical health explanation for why menthol flavored cigarettes are allowed but other flavors are banned.

However, there is an economic reason for the distinction and for Philip Morris to be a cheerleader for regulation. The more regulatory hurdles faced by potential competitors, the easier it is for large tobacco concerns to keep their markets.

Government Ciggies, Inc:

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday began collecting millions in fees from the nation’s tobacco companies to help fund the agency’s newly granted authority to regulate the industry.

The user fees, which will be collected quarterly, are based on each company’s share of the U.S. tobacco market. The FDA will collect about $23 million for fiscal 2009. That will rise to $235 million in 2010 and grow to $712 million by 2019.

The FDA would not disclose the assessments for specific companies.

Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. analyst Christopher Growe said in a note to investors that Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., owner of market-leading Philip Morris USA, would be responsible for about 50 percent of the fees.

FDA spokeswoman Kathleen Quinn said the fees will be used to fund the Center for Tobacco Products, the agency’s group tasked with regulating tobacco. The fees will pay for staffing, offices, systems that will be used to register products and outside contractors.

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