It is easy both to overstate and understate the meaning of the Justice Department's decision Monday to alter its policy toward medical marijuana.
The Obama Administration's ballyhooed shift away from federal prosecution for state-sanctioned pot sales and use does not necessarily signal a turning point in the effort to legalize (and tax) marijuana. We are probably still a generation or two away from that. But the new White House policy is no small matter, either, for it means that tens of thousands of Americans now are free from federal persecution and prosecution for conduct that is completely legal in their own states.
Federal prosecutors now will get little internal blame for failing to bring criminal charges against people who are lawfully selling or using medical marijuana. Nor will federal lawyers necessarily get kudos within the department if they aggressively pursue medical marijuana cases. Forget all the nonsense about federal funding and national endorsements of drug use. The official government position now reverts simply to something akin to legal neutrality: if you smoke it, we won't come, because we have more important things to do with our time.
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Apart from its cultural significant, the shift tells us a lot about where the White House prioritizes its anti-crime efforts. Every minute not spent going after California's pot smokers, for example, is a minute that federal lawyers and investigators now may spend ferreting out terror cells or looking into allegations of white-collar fraud. Every lawful dispensary in Colorado that goes un-raided by the ATF or the FBI or leaves the feds assets and energy to pursue violent crimes, which are on the upswing in many areas of the country, or upon more severe drugs like meth and heroine and crack cocaine.
The shift also has its roots in the economic reality of the times in which it's been invoked. In California and many other states where medical marijuana is legal, officials are trying to reduce massive budget deficits by releasing from prisons inmates who have been convicted of low-level, non-violent marijuana crimes. Even the most ardent law-and-order state executives have had to swallow hard and permit this to occur. The new national policy achieves the same practical effect before indictment, trial and conviction for the simple reason that our federal prisons (especially those in California) are terribly overcrowded, too.
It will be interesting to see, one administration from now, whether Monday's policy shift sticks where it is or floats back in the opposite direction. That's the way it is with these "policy" announcements; they are only as good as the writ of the officials who draft them. Like so many other half-measures performed by the Obama White House since it took office, this tweaking of Justice Department policy sounds more permanent and pervasive than it really is. It is not a sea-change as much as it is a sea-breeze.
For both sides, really, the only way to settle the matter is to lobby the Congress to make meaningful changes to the federal statutory scheme that currently criminalizes the drug. That would be a more permanent and less malleable course—and far less politically convenient. If and when that day comes, we can talk about how the country has moved one step closer to the legalization of marijuana. Until then, you legitimate medical marijuana users out there can take solace in the fact that even though your president evidently won't expend political capital pushing to reform pot laws he also won't be pushing his lawyers to put you in jail, either.