U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, whose crusade against medical marijuana eviscerated hundreds of storefronts and collectives in San Diego, may be backing away from her view that there’s no such thing as legal access to the drug.

In a surprisingly ambiguous and contradictory interview with U-T San Diego, Duffy said she only went after marijuana dispensaries that did not comply with state law.

“From the DEA’s standpoint, to our office, what they compiled for us and forwarded was a list of the medical marijuana dispensaries that were not in compliance with state law. And those are the entities that we sent letters to,” she told the U-T.

“Now the piece that most of the dispensaries had noncompliance issues with was that they were ‘for profit’ retail selling marijuana. And that is not permitted under the law,” she said.

So, if you can prove you are a not-for-profit enterprise and were complying with state law, you will be OK?

That’d be quite a shift.

As the U-T pointed out, Duffy didn’t screen for only those storefronts that were not complying with state law when she shut down almost all of them in the region.

In October 2011, Duffy sent all 253 medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego cease-and-desist letters. And as the DEA touted, 95 percent of them closed down.  (See our San Diego Explained about the crackdown.)

The letter and the press conference Duffy and her counterparts convened were not ambiguous at all: Marijuana was illegal and that was it. Keep distributing it and you could go to prison and lose your property. She directed special attention to landlords and hinted at prosecuting newspapers that ran ads for the storefronts.

She even threatened public employees who were working on marijuana zoning codes.

The letter Duffy sent to dispensaries threatened them with property seizure and worse. The United States saw marijuana as an illegal narcotic and:

United States law takes precedence over State law and applies regardless of the particular uses for which a dispensary is selling and distributing marijuana. Accordingly, it is not a defense to either the referenced crime or to the forfeiture of property that the dispensary is providing “medical marijuana.

In only a couple of months, a cityscape peppered with green crosses, marijuana leaves and other signs of access to the drug was wiped clean.

Compliance with state law didn’t seem to matter at all. Even the one collective that had managed to get an actual permit from the county of San Diego was not allowed to continue operating.

But are things different now? If you can prove you’re not selling the drug for profit, Duffy hinted to the U-T that you may be in the clear.

“If there are individuals who are engaging in ‘for profit’ sales of marijuana, then we are going to investigate those individuals or entities and decide whether action is appropriate,” Duffy said.

And if they’re not?

U-T editorial page editor Bill Osborne speculated that President Obama’s unease with prosecuting marijuana distribution in states that legalized the drug in November may be playing into the switch.

I asked Duffy’s office if I was reading her new comments right and I haven’t yet heard back. I’ll post it if she responds. The implications, after all, are enormous.

The city has already decided to back off city code enforcement of marijuana dispensaries at the prompting of new Mayor Bob Filner.

The city attorney says he’s fine with that.

Without an imminent threat from the U.S. attorney, what’s to stop the dispensaries from reappearing?

They merely have to comply with state law. And the U.S. attorney would join all the public employees around the state trying to figure out what exactly that means.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors,  click here.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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