OUR OPINION: U.S. attorney fails to clarify marijuana policy

It's good that U.S. Attorney Thomas Delahanty wanted to clarify his position when it comes to state and federal laws regarding medical marijuana. Imagine the confusion if he had wanted to muddy the waters.

In response to Maine lawmakers who are seeking to amend the state's medical marijuana program, Delahanty wrote that although all use of marijuana is illegal under federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice would not spend its limited resources to prosecute sick people who use the drug under a doctor's supervision.

But then he went on: The feds still may go after individuals and groups who engage in "unlawful manufacturing and distribution" of marijuana, even if those activities are legal under state law.

In other words, while the state government has spent 18 months creating a system of "manufacturing and distribution" to get medical marijuana to the patients who are helped by it, the federal government reserves the right to treat the people who operate that system as drug dealers.

This stance creates more doubts than it resolves. If federal law enforcement views growing and distributing marijuana for medicinal purposes as a criminal enterprise punishable by lengthy prison sentences and property seizures, it's unclear how these seriously ill and law-abiding patients are supposed to get access to the marijuana they need.

Don't blame Delahanty: He doesn't write the laws, he just enforces them. The problem is a disconnect between state and federal government, and both sides have some work to do before innocent people get hurt.

The state should not do anything to make matters worse. Until the Justice Department can provide more clarity, the Legislature should not amend the law in any way that would provoke federal authorities to take action.

But the really heavy lifting is needed by the federal government.

The District of Columbia and 16 states have decided to permit the use of marijuana in some medical applications.

Not everyone likes it, but it's reality, and the federal law should be changed to reflect that.

The easiest fix would be to reclassify marijuana as a controlled substance that sometimes can be used in a medical setting, as are prescription drugs, and no longer treat it as drug that is always illegal.

Letters such as the one sent by Delahanty and other federal prosecutors do not clarify this situation. It will take action by Congress and the White House to do that.