Some states are moving to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes in response to the Obama administration’s decision to limit prosecutions of sick people or caregivers who use or dispense the drug.
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that his agents will seek criminal charges only when both state and U.S. laws are violated. That signaled a shift from the Bush administration, whose agents raided several centers that dispense marijuana in California, where state law permits its medical use. Twelve other states also allow medical marijuana, but U.S. law prohibits its use for any reason.
“The change in the federal government’s attitude … speaks volumes,” says New Hampshire state Rep. Evalyn Merrick, a Democrat. She is the author of a bill that would legalize medicinal use of marijuana if approved by a doctor. It passed the state House on Wednesday, 234-138.
Merrick, a cancer survivor who once got relief from nausea by smoking pot, pushed a similar bill three years ago, but it failed. This year it is getting a warmer reception, and now heads to the Senate.
Holder’s announcement boosts state proposals for changing marijuana laws, says Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates legalizing marijuana. “The politics around marijuana are changing,” he says.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who co-chairs the caucus on international drug control, says Holder is violating his oath of office if he fails to enforce federal marijuana laws.
“Marijuana is a gateway to higher drugs,” Grassley says.
Among states considering more relaxed laws:
•New Jersey. State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat, in January introduced a bill that would permit medical use of marijuana. It passed the Senate last month and its prospects are good in the House, Scutari says.
•Illinois. A medical marijuana bill, introduced by state Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat, is on the floor in both the House and Senate.
•Minnesota. State Sen. Steve Murphy of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party reintroduced a medical marijuana bill this year after its failure last year. It passed a House panel Wednesday, 9-6.
In November, Michigan and Massachusetts voters adopted marijuana laws. Massachusetts reduced penalties for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana to tickets and a $100 fine.
“The message it sends to young people is that it’s not a big deal to use marijuana,” says David Capeless, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “That’s the wrong message.”