By barring the use of federal funds to prosecute patients and suppliers, Congress resolves a regulatory disconnect.

Congress recently gave an early Christmas present to residents of Maine and the 22 other states where medical marijuana is legal: Buried in the massive 2015 federal spending bill is a provision that bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to prosecute patients and suppliers who are complying with state regulations.

The measure expires when the spending bill does, in October. And it doesn’t make cannabis – in any form – legal under federal law. But by allowing those who need medical marijuana to use it without fear they’ll be targeted by the federal government, lawmakers have taken a small but significant step toward resolving a regulatory disconnect and making ordinary Americans’ lives easier.

In 1996, California passed the nation’s first medical marijuana law. In 1999, medical marijuana was legalized in Maine; retail dispensaries for the drug became legal here in 2009. That same year, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would go after medical marijuana providers only if they violated both state and federal statutes.

That pledge, however, doesn’t seem to have stopped federal officials from zealously pursuing users and suppliers of medical cannabis. In a little over four years, the Obama administration brought 153 medical marijuana cases – compared to 163 cases in all eight years of the George W. Bush administration, the anti-marijuana prohibition group NORML reported in 2013. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and several U.S. attorneys have raided hundreds of dispensaries that were following state laws. Over 335 defendants (mostly in California) have been charged with federal crimes; 158 have been sentenced to a combined 480 years in prison.

The price tag for the raids, arrests, investigations, prosecutions, incarceration and probation? Around $300 million and rising, according to the medical marijuana patient advocacy group Safe Access Now.

Though a growing number of Americans have become fed up at this level of overkill, it’s taken years to see change. Congress repeatedly rejected proposals to codify Holder’s hands-off policy into federal law. Ending the federal ban on medical marijuana has required the endorsement of pro-states’ rights Republicans like Dana Rohrabacher, who joined forces with another California congressman, Democrat Sam Farr, to craft the medical cannabis language that was approved Dec. 11.

A lot of work remains to be done at the federal level. The limits on the Justice Department’s pursuit of medical marijuana cases have an expiration date of Sept. 30, 2015. What’s more, the federal DEA still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug: a substance more dangerous than cocaine, with no known benefits and a “high capacity for abuse.” Long-lasting reform will entail passage of H.R. 689, which would reclassify marijuana for medical use and increase therapeutic research.

But the recently approved legislation represents progress. Sick people and their caregivers shouldn’t be in law enforcement’s crosshairs for engaging in activity that their state has recognized as legal – and it’s encouraging that federal policymakers have finally recognized this.

Read More