WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In a sharp policy shift, the Obama administration told federal attorneys not to prosecute patients who use marijuana for medical reasons or dispensaries in states where it has been legalized.
A Justice Department official said the formal guidelines were issued Monday to reflect President Barack Obama's views. The Bush administration had said it could enforce the federal law against marijuana and that it trumped state laws.
The decision was praised by activists in California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. But concern remains among some medical and law enforcement authorities about hundreds of clinics said to be selling pot under the protection of state law and without regard to health.
A spokesman for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a brief statement in which Schwarzenegger appeared to support the policy change:
"The governor believes it is appropriate for the federal government to focus their resources on criminal activity and securing the border," the statement said.
As a candidate during his presidential bid last year, Obama said he intended to halt raids of medical marijuana facilities operating legally under state laws.
After he took office in January, a Drug Enforcement Administration raid on a dispensary in Lake Tahoe, California, raised questions about whether he would follow that pledge.
A White House spokesman repeated Obama's view that "federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws."
Stephen Gutwillig, California head of the Drug Policy Alliance, called the move a good first step.
"There is a fundamental need of patients to access marijuana as medicine right now," he said. "While it's great to see the Obama administration radically de-escalate the Bush and Clinton administrations' war on medical marijuana patients, more needs to be done to protect sick people and their caregivers."