LOS ANGELES (AP) – Medical marijuana users and dispensary owners in California have held their breath for years – fearful they would be targeted for prosecution by the federal government.

They finally exhaled this past week when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said federal agents will now target marijuana distributors only when they violate both federal and state laws, a departure from the policy of the Bush administration.

It’s not seen by many as a move by the Obama administration toward the legalization of marijuana.

However, it could end much of the confusion among state and federal authorities dealing with the mishmash of laws in which cultivating, using and selling pot for medical purposes is allowed by states but outlawed by the federal government.

“This signals, in my mind, a true kind of federalism,” said Jody Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California. “The federal government is allowing states to take chances, to take experiments and see what happens.”

California is one of 13 states that allows medical use of marijuana.

Over the past 2½ years, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has raided at least 80 dispensaries in California, the majority in the Central District that extends from the Central Coast down to Orange County and includes Los Angeles.

Yet criminal charges have only been filed in several of those cases against the biggest distributors accused of breaking both federal and state laws, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Central District of California.

“What we have done in all of our narcotic cases is to focus on large-scale traffickers,” Mrozek said. “In terms of what happens in the future, the federal government will continue to enforce federal narcotics law.”

The confusion was reflected in a case against Charles Lynch, who ran a marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay. Federal prosecutors said he should have known his employees sold marijuana outside his store.

Lynch, 47, was convicted in August of distributing more than 100 kilograms of marijuana. His sentencing is set for Monday; guidelines allow up to 85 years but prosecutors recommended a five-year prison sentence.

Lynch’s attorneys will try to persuade Department of Justice officials to drop the case.

“The feds picked the wrong guy,” federal public defender Reuven Cohen said. “It’s pure fiction that somehow Charlie was not in compliance with state law.”

Two of the jurors who convicted Lynch also took issue with the federal prosecution. They wrote letters to U.S. District Judge George Wu asking for leniency, saying they felt they were forced to find him guilty under federal guidelines.

“Because of the instructions we were given regarding that we were to disregard state law, I felt we had no other option but to convict Mr. Lynch,” juror Andy Gordon wrote.

Fellow panelist Reza Iranpour called the verdict a “miscarriage of justice” and said Lynch was a victim of “bureaucratic conflict.”

Lynch “faces the prospect of being severely punished for trusting misleading laws and regulations,” Iranpour wrote.

Medical marijuana advocates say the change in federal policy announced by Holder mirrors the spirit of the 1996 California ballot initiative that made it legal to sell the drug to people with a prescription.

“I think that if nothing else it gives people a sense of optimism that the federal government is going to back off,” said James Shaw, director of the Union of Medical Marijuana Patients. “But it’s not entirely clear to me if they are going to do that.”

Holder didn’t specify who would be exempt from future DEA raids. And one federal prosecutor said cases will still be filed against people who violate the law by selling marijuana for non-medicinal purposes and other actions.

“From the type of dispensaries we have seen over the years, it may be anticipated this does not signal an end to federal enforcement actions but instead a refinement,” said acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown in Sacramento.

Times have changed, agreed Elliot Katz, a senior member of a Los Angeles-based marijuana collective, but not necessarily for the better.

He recalled walking into a dispensary when he was first issued a medical marijuana card in the mid-1990s and finding that everyone was visibly sick.

These days, marijuana users who have no medical reason to obtain the drug are taking advantage of the system, he said.

“It’s up to the doctor or dispensary operator to weed out those people,” said Katz, 46, who has AIDS. “The government can do all they want to regulate, but it’s up to us to regulate ourselves.”

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