Memo: U.S. attorney blocked charges on medical pot
March 7, 2009
LOS ANGELES ” The U.S. attorney in Los Angeles ordered prosecutors to stop filing charges against medical marijuana dispensaries in a confidential memo last week, but then abruptly lifted the ban on Friday, according to a published report.
The initial order from U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien was reported by the Los Angeles Times, citing three people who read the memo but requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
O’Brien’s order came two days after Attorney General Eric Holder seemed to imply that medical marijuana prosecutions would not be a priority for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama. California law permits medicinal use of marijuana, but the federal government has not recognized those laws and has continued raids in the state.
A Feb. 27 e-mail from Christine Ewell, head of the U.S. attorney’s criminal division, included O’Brien’s order, according to the Times. The newspaper’s sources said the memo told prosecutors to stop issuing subpoenas or applying for search warrants.
Ewell sent out another e-mail several hours after the first telling prosecutors not to discuss the memo with anyone outside the U.S. attorney’s office, the sources said.
A Justice Department official said Friday that the attorney general did not direct O’Brien or any other U.S. attorney to change their policies on marijuana cases.
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Another e-mail came out Friday telling prosecutors to resume working on medical marijuana cases. O’Brien declined to explain why he issued the memo and later rescinded it.
California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996, which made it legal to sell marijuana to people who have a doctor’s prescription. Since that time, hundreds of dispensaries have opened in the state.
Twelve other states also allow medical marijuana under certain conditions, but federal law bans the drug.
During the Bush administration, federal agents raided medical marijuana clinics, prosecuted suppliers and pressured property owners to evict marijuana dispensaries.
Obama had promised a change in direction.
“I’m not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue,” Obama told the Mail Tribune of Medford, Ore., in March.
At a press conference on Feb. 25, Holder was asked about five California raids in which federal agents seized marijuana and cash in South Lake Tahoe and Los Angeles.
“What the president said during the campaign, you’ll be surprised to know, will be consistent with what we’ll be doing here in law enforcement,” Holder told reporters.