With legal, recreational pot on the horizon in two states, the memo is raising questions about the future of medical marijuana not just in Washington and Colorado, but the 18 other states and Washington, D.C., that allow it.
While advocates say it's too early to gauge the impact of the new recreational pot push, there were signs it could hurt medical marijuana.
In Washington, the governor and many lawmakers were already looking to rein in the state's unregulated medical marijuana market because they worried its untaxed cannabis would undercut the highly taxed recreational pot.
There may be some attrition in the beginning, as bargain-hunting medical marijuana users or those wanting to avoid the government bureaucracy of state registries dabble in the recreational market, Robnett said. But most will stay because the medical strains are tailored for their illnesses, can be more potent and don't necessarily create a high while relieving their symptoms, she said.
The DOJ memo outlines eight areas of "marijuana-related conduct" that it won't tolerate, from distribution to kids to use of firearms and drugged driving. Marijuana advocates say they welcome them as guidelines for medical marijuana states to tailor their laws and a way for other states to enact new laws without fear of federal reprisal.
Advocates say states with even regulations that meet or exceed regulations in those areas should not be worried about increased federal scrutiny. "It should give growers and dispensers a level of comfort that the federal government is becoming clearer in what their guidance is to U.S. attorneys," said Roseanne Scotti, the New Jersey director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
In Oregon, state health officials are drawing up regulations for a new medical marijuana program for next year. U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall has said the state will need to create strong teeth when it writes the regulations, and make sure it can enforce them.