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People who use marijuana for medical purposes and those who distribute it to them should not face federal prosecution, provided they act according to state law, the Justice Department said Monday in a directive with far-reaching political and legal implications.

In a memorandum to federal prosecutors in the 14 states that make some allowance for the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the department said that it was committed to the “efficient and rational use” of its resources and that prosecuting patients and distributors who are in “clear and unambiguous compliance” with state laws did not meet that standard.

“It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement accompanying the memo, “but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”

The new stance was hardly an enthusiastic embrace of medical marijuana, or the laws that allow it in some states, but signaled clearly that the administration thinks there are more important priorities for prosecutors.

Emphasizing that it would continue to pursue those who use the concept of medical marijuana as a ruse, the department said, “Marijuana distribution in the United States remains the single largest source of revenue for the Mexican cartels,” and said that pursuing the makers and sellers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, would remain a “core priority.”

One prominent conservative, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, sharply criticized the Justice Department position, complaining that it would weaken federal enforcement of drug laws.

“By directing federal law enforcement officers to ignore federal drug laws, the administration is tacitly condoning the use of marijuana in the United States,” said Smith, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “If we want to win the war on drugs, federal prosecutors have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute all medical marijuana dispensaries and not just those that are merely fronts for illegal marijuana distribution.”

For years, polls have shown widespread public support for making the drug available to relieve the suffering of people who are very ill, and the new position reflected President Barack Obama’s positions as a candidate and Holder’s declarations in the administration’s early days.

But repeated efforts in Congress to block federal prosecutions of medical marijuana have fallen short, and the new position was a sharp departure from the Bush administration, when the Drug Enforcement Administration raided medical marijuana distributors that violated federal statutes, even if the distributors appeared to be complying with state laws.

“The new policy came in a memo from David W. Ogden, the deputy attorney general, to the U.S. attorneys in the affected states, most notably California.