UNDER a new administration, the Justice Department finally got the word. Raiding distributors of medical marijuana in states where they operate legally is a bad use of scarce enforcement resources. Under the Bush administration, cannabis dispensaries were a frequent target of raids, pitting states that have legalized marijuana for medical reasons with U.S. drug enforcement agents governed by federal drug laws.
It was a contentious standoff that initiated numerous legal battles, nearly all won by federal officials. Even the Supreme Court upheld the right of the federal government to prosecute marijuana sellers, superseding state law. But California and 12 other states, including Michigan, which have legalized marijuana sales to people with doctors' prescriptions, fought back.
If patients suffering from terminal or chronic diseases could find some relief from marijuana dispensed legally under state law, why should the Drug Enforcement Administration mark it for zero tolerance? Advocates said the enduring message under the Bush Justice Department was "Watch out - we have the authority to go after everybody."
Now, in what civil libertarians celebrate as a sweeping change in federal drug policy, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department won't prosecute pot dispensaries that are operating legally in California and elsewhere. "The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law," Mr. Holder said.
In clarifying the shift in enforcement of federal drug laws, the attorney general said that enforcement would now be aimed at drug traffickers who falsely masquerade as medical dispensaries or "try to use medical-marijuana laws as a shield for activity" that flouts state law.
With that declaration, the Obama Administration set an important priority for what counts in drug enforcement - going after true drug offenders operating in violation of both federal and state law, not marijuana use for legitimate medical purposes.