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Last week, two lawmakers in Washington, D.C. expressed their frustration over the fact that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has continued to prosecute patients in states where medical cannabis is legal — in open defiance of a congressional amendment passed last December that protects patients and dispensaries. California Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (a Republican) and Sam Farr (a Democrat), co-sponsors of the amendment that prohibits federal interference in states where medical cannabis is legal, sent a letter to the DOJ demanding that prosecutions of patients and providers cease.

Wrote the representatives in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder:

“We respectfully insist that you bring your Department back into compliance with federal law by ceasing marijuana prosecutions and forfeiture actions against those acting in accordance with state medical marijuana laws.”

The Justice Department, however, in a very narrow interpretation of the law, has issued statements reflecting its belief that the amendment does not apply to cases against individuals or organizations (such as dispensaries that are currently being prosecuted in California). Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesperson for the DOJ, said the law only stops the department from “impeding the ability of states to carry out their medical marijuana laws.”

Congressmen Rohrabacher and Farr, in their letter to Holder, said that the DOJ’s interpretation of the amendment was “emphatically wrong.” They went on to state that the purpose of the amendment was to prevent the DOJ from wasting law enforcement resources on prosecutions of “medical marijuana patients and providers, including businesses that operate legally under state law.”

These “enforcement resources” are outlined in a 2013 report by Americans for Safe Access. The report illustrated that the Obama administration has spent more than $80 million per year — equal to about $200,000 per day — to prosecute medical marijuana users, cultivators, and dispensaries. The crackdown has been justified by the fact that cannabis is, alongside heroin and meth, a Schedule I drug, giving it an official status of “no currently accepted medical use.”

Separate legislation has been introduced to Congress that would reclassify cannabis to Schedule II, preventing the crackdown by the DOJ and DEA in states with legal medical marijuana. It would also allow much needed research into the plant’s medical efficacy. While passage of this rescheduling is uncertain, it would go beyond the existing federal amendment and offer broader, less ambiguous protections for individuals and retail outlets.

The only thing that seems certain currently is the DOJ’s defiance of the existing amendment and its continued prosecution of patients and dispensaries in places like the San Francisco Bay area and the state of Washington. However, given the strict interpretation of the amendment and defiant stance of the DOJ, patients and providers in all 23 states where medical cannabis is legal are subject to fear, federal scrutiny, and prosecution.

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