Patients looking to use medical marijuana have just won one more battle.
The federal government will no longer prosecute medical marijuana patients or caregivers in the 13 states that have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes. That’s a move that medical marijuana advocates in Michigan say will allow pain-stricken citizens to seek treatment with less of an emotional burden.
While the new policy will not change federal marijuana laws, many proponents of the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes say the new guidelines released by President Barack Obama’s administration are a step forward for medical marijuana initiatives.
In a statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice last week, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden wrote that the federal regulation of marijuana in states that have legalized it for medicinal purposes has been complicated by inconsistencies between federal and state laws. He also wrote that the new guidelines — under which the federal prosecutors will no longer intervene — reflect a re-evaluation of the federal government’s use of resources.
Michigan became the 13th state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes when 63 percent of its residents voted to pass Proposal 1 in November 2008. The legislative initiative, which went into effect in April of this year, allows Michigan residents to use marijuana to treat chronic illnesses and debilitating diseases, but does not identify a way for both patients and caregivers to legally obtain the drug.
Last week’s change to federal regulations offered some encouragement for medical marijuana patients and their supporters, according to Dennis Hayes, an Ann Arbor criminal defense attorney and co-founder of the Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Patient Collective.
Hayes said the move will lead to greater tolerance and acceptance of the drug’s use in medicine and it could help erode the drug’s stigma.
“Once people are aware this is not a boogeyman drug like they’ve tried to make it for 50 years, the tolerance of it goes up,” Hayes said. “Once they know somebody who’s a medical marijuana patient, who receives some comfort from the chemotherapy or the HIV, or any of the other debilitating conditions that qualify with the law, people will be more informed.”
“The more informed you are, the more likely you are to figure out that the government’s been lying to us for 50 fucking years,” he added.
One of the most important effects of this new federal policy is the peace of mind it will give medical marijuana patients and caregivers, said Paul Stanford, who started the Hemp and Cannabis Foundation. One of the foundation’s medical clinics, which was established in Southfield, Mich. after the proposal was passed, helps patients assess their medical marijuana needs.
“They can sleep a lot easier knowing that the federal government isn’t going to investigate or prosecute as long as they’re in compliance with the Michigan medical marijuana law,” Stanford said. “That’s a large relief for medical marijuana patients.”
In states like California, where medical marijuana is legalized and dispensaries — or marijuana stores — are allowed in Los Angeles County, more people have been prosecuted for using the drug for medicinal purposes because of federal government intervention, according to Hayes.
Cases in which patients or caregivers possess more than 100 marijuana plants or 100 pounds of the drug are referred to the federal government from the local or state police, Hayes said.
But these federal cases have not been as prevalent in Michigan since the law just came into effect six months ago, Hayes said, though there have been cases of state law violations.
Since the medical marijuana law in Michigan is new, state law enforcement officials have not yet compiled information on the number of violations of state and federal medical marijuana laws, according to Melody Kindraka, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police.
The Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Patient Collective has seen a surge in the number of people attending meetings in recent months, a sign of the recent rising support for medical marijuana, Hayes said.
“The wave is building,” Hayes said. “Little ripples may be a little wave by the end of the year, maybe a bigger wave next year.”
Despite this step by the federal government to take a backseat in the prosecution of the medical use of the drug, Hayes said the inconsistencies in Michigan’s law still remain a big hurdle for many medical marijuana patients and caregivers.
“In Michigan, once you get a registration card, the first thing you have to do as a patient is break the federal law to get your plant,” Hayes said. “And it’s functionally unable to allow the state to do something that is a violation of the federal law, so you’re always going to have this psychological hurdle for the local units of government.”
James McCurtis, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, said the new federal guidelines will not affect how the state regulates usage and care of medicinal marijuana.
McCurtis said as long as patients and caregivers are still complying with state law, there will be no surge in state prosecutions or regulation due to the federal changes.
“Our role will still be the same,” McCurtis said. “The law is still going to be the same here, and what that federal guideline basically says is as long as people follow the state law, the federal government is not going to hassle them, bother them, that sort of thing. So the state law is going to remain intact, it’s not changing any time soon.”
As of last week, the Michigan Department of Community Health has received 8,093 applications for medical marijuana cards, 6,987 of which were issued. Of these, 4,956 cards were given to patients and 2,031 were given to caregivers.
McCurtis said because the state law is not changing, prosecutions in the state will not become more moderate.
“The state law is going to be what it is,” McCurtis said. “And if you break the law, then you’re subject to arrest and other type of prosecution, and if you follow the law, you should be fine. And I think that’s exactly what the federal guidelines are saying, too.”
LSA junior Francesca Bardinelli, executive director of the University’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said the new guidelines represent an important step by the Obama administration in giving states more rights regarding drug laws and will propel other states to move forward with medical marijuana legalization.
“It’s really great to see that the federal government is leaving it up to states’ plans,” Bardinelli said. “(It) gives more freedom to other states who are contemplating medical marijuana policy. So it’s a great step in that sense.”
While the policy is an important step in the medical marijuana crusade, because it’s not completely fool-proof, the results of the change remain to be seen, Andrew Kent, president of the University’s chapter of the National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws, wrote in an e-mail interview.
“Their position still gives the government leeway to interfere on a case-by-case basis,” wrote Kent, an LSA senior. “It remains to be seen if the government will follow their own guidelines.”
Despite a similar policy change announced several months ago, federal government officials failed to respect their own declarations, according to Kent.
“(U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder initially announced an end to federal raids on medical marijuana patients months ago, but the DEA continued to raid patients and dispensaries,” Kent wrote. “With the guidelines in writing hopefully the policy will be more respected.”