Bay Area medical marijuana advocates today hailed new U.S. Justice Department guidelines on marijuana prosecutions, but said questions remain on exactly what difference the new policy will make.

Under the guidelines, prosecutors are discouraged from pursuing charges against medical marijuana patients and their providers who comply with state laws.

Steph Sherer, executive director of Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, said, “This is a huge victory for medical marijuana patients.”

In today’s announcement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, D.C., outlined formal guidelines for federal prosecutors in the 14 states with laws allowing some type of medical marijuana use by some patients.

“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana,” Holder said.
But Holder also said federal prosecutors will continue to go after large-scale drug traffickers who “hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”

Federal drug laws do not allow an exception for state medical marijuana laws, such as California’s voter-approved Compassionate Use Act of 1996.

But the guidelines provide prosecutors with what Holder called a “balanced approach” to deciding when to enforce U.S. laws that criminalize the use of marijuana.

Sherer said it is not clear how the new guidelines will affect the more than two dozen marijuana prosecutions now pending in federal courts nationwide, most of which are California cases.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello of San Francisco referred questions to Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler, who said the policy is “not to focus on individuals who are in compliance with state law.”

Schmaler said, “This is a policy that has been in effect since the Obama administration has been in office.”

Russoniello supervises federal prosecutions in the judicial Northern District of California, which includes the Bay Area and northern coastal California.

Last April, Russoniello commented during a speech to law students in San Francisco on a preliminary announcement by Holder of the new policy.

Russoniello said then that the policy shift would make little difference to prosecutions in Northern California and that prosecutors would continue to target entrepreneurs who sell marijuana for a profit.

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