US won't 'target' medicinal marijuana smokers

Americans who smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes aren’t likely to be pursued by federal authorities, despite a ruling by the top United States court that these users could face federal charges, people on both sides of the issue say.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court on Monday said those who smoke marijuana because their doctors recommend it to ease pain can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws, overriding medical marijuana statutes in 10 states.

While the justices expressed sympathy for two seriously ill California women who brought the case, the majority agreed that federal agents may arrest even sick people who use the drug, as well as the people who grow pot for them.

The ruling could be an early test of the compassion Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised to bring to the Justice Department following the tenure of John Ashcroft.

Gonzales and his aides were silent on the ruling on Monday, but several officials in President George Bush’s administration said individual users have little reason to worry.

“We have never targeted the sick and dying, but rather criminals engaged in drug trafficking,” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesperson Bill Grant said.

Yet Ashcroft’s Justice Department moved aggressively following the Supreme Court’s first decision against medical marijuana in 2001, seizing individuals’ marijuana and raiding their suppliers.

The lawsuit that led to Monday’s ruling, in fact, resulted from a raid by DEA agents and local sheriff’s deputies on a garden near Oroville, California, where Diane Monson was cultivating six marijuana plants.

“I’m going to have to be prepared to be arrested,” said Monson, an accountant who has degenerative spine disease and grows her own marijuana plants.

Javier Pena, the DEA agent in charge of the San Francisco field division, said on Monday his agency took part in the raid only at the request of local authorities.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said on Monday that “people shouldn’t panic ... there aren’t going to be many changes”.

Local and state officers handle nearly all marijuana prosecutions and must still follow any state laws that protect patients.

The ruling does not strike down California’s law, or similar ones in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state.
However, it may hurt efforts to pass laws in other states because the federal government’s prosecution authority trumps states’ wishes.

It was unclear whether any medical marijuana users ever have been arrested by federal agents. They typically are involved only when the quantities are substantial.

Tom Riley, spokesperson for the White House drug policy office, said federal prisoners convicted of marijuana possession had on average more than 45kg.

Growers of large amounts of medical marijuana and people who are outspoken in their use of it could face heightened scrutiny.

“From an enforcement standpoint, the federal government is not going to be crashing into people’s homes trying to determine what type of medicine they’re taking,” said Asa Hutchinson, a former DEA administrator.

“They have historically concentrated on suppliers and people who flaunt the law. There should not be any change from that circumstance.”—Sapa-AP

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