An employee pulls marijuana out of a large canister for...

An employee pulls marijuana out of a large canister for a customer at the LoDo Wellness Center in downtown Denver, Colorado, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Credit: Bloomberg / Matthew Staver

State health officials shouldn't be viewed as illegal drug traffickers if they bring a marijuana-based substance into New York to treat children with intractable epilepsy. But it could happen.

Under pressure from lawmakers and advocacy group for immediate access to the drug, New York has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for protection from prosecution so cannabidiol can be imported from a state where the substance is legal. Federal authorities should grant the exception.

But the need for special dispensation highlights the confusion created by the national checkerboard of laws. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but legal for medical purposes in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and for recreational use in Colorado and Washington.

New York legalized medical marijuana in July, but the tightly regulated program that requires seed-to-sale production inside the state won't be implemented until January 2016. That's too long to get cannabidiol, also known as CBD or "Charlotte's web," for children and young adults with a rare form of epilepsy that can cause hundreds of seizures a week. The condition is resistant to standard therapies and has contributed to the deaths of three children in New York since July.

There is evidence of an extraordinary reduction in the frequency of seizures with the pot derivatative, which can be ingested as an oil. It has no psychoactive effect. Children who take it don't get high.

The Justice Department has said it won't focus marijuana enforcement on sick people, but will prevent distribution to minors and diversion from states where it's legal. New York's epilepsy treatment plan could conceivably run afoul of that agenda. But common sense says it does not.

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