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Back in July, I interviewed a drug policy expert about an apparent change in Justice Department policy that suggested a crackdown on medical marijuana – which is legal in many states but illegal under federal law – might be coming.

Now, with the announcement last week by California’s four U.S. attorneys that pot dispensaries will be targeted with harsh criminal sanctions, the shift feared by drug policy reform advocates appears to have come to pass. The rhetoric from candidate Barack Obama about not prioritizing medical marijuana cases now seems a distant memory.

To learn more about what’s happening in California, I spoke to Bob Egelko, a veteran reporter who covers courts for the San Francisco Chronicle and has been following the story.

Starting with the basics, what is the medical marijuana law in California and what does it allow for?

In 1996 the voters approved Proposition 215. It allows people to receive marijuana for medical purposes with their doctor’s approval – not prescription, but recommendation. It also allows them to grow it themselves or get it from a caregiver without being prosecuted under state law. It was the first law like that in the country, and there are now laws somewhat similar to it in 15 other states plus the District of Columbia.