Reps. Frank, Polis urge DOJ to leave medical marijuana to states

Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) are urging the Obama administration this week to reiterate earlier vows to leave the enforcement of medical marijuana laws up to states.

The lawmakers want Attorney General Eric Holder to re-avow his commitment to a 2009 Department of Justice (DOJ) memorandum — known as the Ogden Memo — that said the agency won't target medical marijuana patients or providers if they are not violating state law.

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"Recent actions by United States Attorneys across the country have prompted states to deny patients safe and reliable access to their medicine," the lawmakers wrote in a June 20 letter to Holder.

The letter was prompted by the lawmakers' concerns that several correspondences this year from DOJ to state and local attorneys indicate the agency is walking back the Ogden Memo in the face of conservative criticism that the administration has been too lenient in the war on drugs.

In a February letter to the Oakland, Calif., city attorney, for instance, DOJ vowed the department "will enforce the [Controlled Substances Act] vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law."

Such letters have emboldened state lawmakers in Washington state, Arizona and Rhode Island to kill or delay implementation of local medical marijuana laws, the lawmakers wrote.

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Use and distribution of marijuana is illegal under federal law, although more than a dozen states have approved its use for medical purposes.

Frank and Polis cited two primary reasons they think DOJ should leave the issue to states: first, the agency has limited resources, which they argue should go toward prosecuting more serious crimes — the same argument DOJ offered in the Ogden Memo; and second, targeting the medical marijuana industry "harms the people whose major goal is to seek relief from pain wholly caused by illness," they said.

"There are now hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana patients in states where the medication is legal," Frank and Polis wrote. "These patients will either purchase medical marijuana safely at state-regulated entities or seek it through unregulated channels: in the criminal market or by growing it themselves." 

DOJ is well aware of the concerns. Earlier this month, Holder announced that he'll soon be clarifying the agency's position of medical marijuana.