The top federal prosecutors in Washington sent a stern warning to Washington State that a medical-marijuana law passed by the legislature this week, which would license dispensaries and growers, could result in a wave of criminal charges against cannabis providers and even state employees. At the same time, in a mixed message, they telegraphed that the Obama Administration's policy of tacitly permitting states with medical marijuana laws would proceed.

"The Washington legislative proposals will create a licensing scheme that permits large-scale marijuana cultivation and distributions," wrote US Attorneys Jenny Durkan and Michael Ormsby, respectively representing the Western and Eastern districts of Washington State, in a letter sent today to Governor Chris Gregoire. "This would authorize conduct contrary to federal law and thus, would undermine the federal government's efforts to regulate the possession, manufacturing, and trafficking of controlled substances. Accordingly, the Department could consider civil and criminal legal remedies regarding those who set up marijuana growing facilities and dispensaries as they will be doing so in violation of federal law. ... In addition, state employees who conducted activities mandated by the Washington legislative proposals would not be immune from liability..." including "criminal prosecution."

The letter was sent in response to an inquiry from Governor Gregoire to Attorney General Eric Holder (The federal prosecutors' letter is here and Gregoire's letter is here).

But this may not be as unequivocal as it first reads. AG Holder issued a memo in 2009 that indicates, in essence, the feds won't intervene with medical-marijuana cases that are in compliance with state laws. Holder said, of course, that the feds reserved the right to prosecute those cases.

In that vein, US Attorney Durkan also issued a statement today that "in every area we prosecute, our office works to focus our limited resources on impactful cases that implicate an important national or community interest. In the area of marijuana drug prosecutions, this means our targets include organized criminal groups, those who abuse public or tribal lands, people who commercialize the marijuana trade for profit or use it to finance other criminal activity, and doctors who abuse their positions and fraudulently certify individuals as medical marijuana patients. We have not prosecuted truly ill people or their doctors for using marijuana to lessen suffering, as permitted under state law."

So what to make of this? It's breaking right now (and I'm not a lawyer), but here's my take:

Gregoire may have requested this letter as political cover so she can veto the bill (citing the federal conflict, the risk to state employees, etc). Of course, our medical marijuana law already conflicts with federal law, her employees have already been collecting taxes on medical marijuana against federal law, and her employees provided input on this bill. So they are already complicit. This is the best chance Washington has ever had to improve its medical marijuana law. Gregoire should sign it into law—standing by her legislature—and make Obama figure out what the hell he wants to do. Does he want to throw down with the states trying to do the right thing (uh, the states that have medical marijuana laws are also the ones that elected him)?

Right now, the Obama Administration is needlessly being an asshole. Seriously sick people and their families need to know that they have safe access to medical marijuana, and families need to know they don't have to go to alleys to get pot. Dispensaries and growers, obviously, are the way patients get the medicine they need. The feds need to stop playing nice nice with legalese and make it clear where the rules stand.