WASHINGTON — Last week, the Obama Administration's Justice Department announced it would no longer prosecute users and suppliers of medical marijuana — as long as they're complying with the law in Alaska and 13 other states where medicinal pot use is legal.
But prosecutions have never been much of an issue in Alaska, where voters in 1998 passed a ballot measure that allows people who obtain permission from a doctor to possess and use marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Only about 200 people currently have permission to use medical marijuana in Alaska. And since the law took effect in 1999, the state of Alaska hasn't prosecuted a single case connected to the medical use of the drug, said Bill McAllister, a spokesman for Attorney General Dan Sullivan.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Anchorage also hasn't ever prosecuted any cases in Alaska connected to the use or possession of medical marijuana, said spokesman Chuck Farmer.
Most of the cases have been in California, where within weeks of Obama's inauguration, federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided several pot dispensaries in Los Angeles. Those raids and others in California led some to question whether the Obama administration's drug enforcement policies had changed much from the Bush-era policies.
The memo released this week, however, seemed to add some clarity, said national advocates for more liberal marijuana laws.
"They've decided to stand down on the state laws," said Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, NORML.
In Oregon, Washington and Alaska, there simply aren't any dispensaries, and that lack of retail availability changes the dynamic and doesn't lend itself to raids, St. Pierre said. For that reason, it simply isn't on the radar of local law enforcement, either.
"We won't be open to the kind of nonsensical fraudulent use they have in California," said Lt. Dave Parker of the Anchorage Police Department.
In Alaska, anyone who wants to use marijuana to help treat an illness must get a prescription from an Alaska-licensed doctor, said Phillip Mitchell, who oversees the state's medical marijuana registry for the Bureau of Vital Statistics within the Department of Health and Social Services.
The patient must have a "chronic or debilitating disease" that the physician certifies would be alleviated by medical pot. The diseases include cancer, glaucoma, positive HIV status, AIDS, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures and multiple sclerosis.
Those who obtain the prescription can then apply to the registry. The number of people on the registry has fluctuated, beginning with 28 in 1999 and 228 this year. They must reapply every year.
Anyone on the registry may posses up to 1 ounce of marijuana in a usable form, and up to six plants. No more than three of the plants can be producing or flowering at any time.
There is nothing in state law noting how people are supposed to obtain medical marijuana, Mitchell said, and there are no dispensaries. It's also not as though people can pick it up at their local pharmacy.
"That's caused some grief for people who've moved here from California," Mitchell said. "They get quite upset and angry, and it's hard to get them to understand that we're just a very different state up here."
However, as both state and federal prosecutors noted, they've never pursued a case involving medical pot.
Alaska has long had a relatively liberal attitude toward possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. The landmark 1975 Ravin v. State case established that the privacy provisions in Alaska's constitution protect adults who use small amounts of marijuana at home. For many years, possession of less than 4 ounces at home was legal.
But the status of the law is somewhat murky now, and since April, the state has operated under the interpretation that there is no longer a legally permissible amount of marijuana for in-home possession, McAllister said.
In 2006, the Alaska Legislature passed a law making illegal the use of small amounts of pot at home. That law was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska on privacy grounds.
This spring, the Supreme Court declined to clarify it, said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, and they're looking for another case that could be used to challenge the existing law.
"While the Legislature has passed a law, we believe that under the standard laid down by Ravin, it makes it unconstitutional," he said. "ACLU's objection is that the Alaska Constitution is very clear that there's a constitutional right to privacy. Obviously the ACLU is a strong proponent of privacy."
Anecdotally, however, he says he is unaware of a concerted effort by law enforcement to arrest adults who possess small amounts of pot at home for their own use. The Anchorage Police Department, for example, is very unlikely to pursue such cases, said Parker, the department's spokesman.
"We don't actively seek out people who posses marijuana when we're occupied with heavier narcotics; it's a matter of resources," Parker said, but added that if other illegal drugs, large amounts of marijuana, weapons, or distribution are involved, it's an entirely different situation, he said. Same for minors, Parker said, or if pot is found at a school.
"Now if someone has a 100-plant grow or a 1,000-plant grow, that's another matter," Parker said.
And just because the feds say they're not going to pursue medical marijuana cases if people are using the drug lawfully under state guidelines, it doesn't mean that people with sensitive jobs can smoke pot at the workplace.
After the Justice Department announcement, the federal Department of Transportation was careful to note this week that marijuana use, even if it's medicinal, remains off- limits to what it deems "safety-sensitive transportation employees."
That means pilots, school bus drivers, truck drivers, train engineers, subway operators, aircraft maintenance personnel, transit security personnel with firearms, ship captains, and pipeline emergency response personnel.
"The Department of Transportation's Drug and Alcohol Testing Regulation does not authorize "medical marijuana" under a state law to be a valid medical explanation for a transportation employee's positive drug test result," wrote Jim Swart, director of the Secretary of Transportation's Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy and Compliance. "We want to assure the traveling public that our transportation system is the safest it can possibly be."