Many medicines come with side effects, but few can compare with medical marijuana’s: What other drug, when used as directed, could land you in jail?

That’s because even though 16 states including Maine have legalized the use of marijuana in some applications, the federal government still considers it to be illegal under any circumstance.

To confuse matters even more, the U.S. Department of Justice has sent mixed signals on how it views use of the drug. Early in his tenure, Attorney General Eric Holder gave states reassurance that his prosecutors would not go after medicinal users. But recently, some U.S. attorneys, including one in Rhode Island, have announced that they would not look the other way at the establishment of legal pot growing and selling businesses, even if they were regulated by the state.

That’s a cause of concern for Maine, which is implementing a citizen-initiated law that tries to control the distribution of marijuana to make sure it goes to the right people.

As a result, state officials are overseeing transactions that are criminal under federal law, and patients are engaging in activities that are both legal and illegal at the same time. This is a problem and it is one that the federal government should fix.

While there is still debate within the medical community about the therapeutic value of marijuana, there are plenty of sick people and their caregivers who say that it works for them.

They have changed the laws in more than a quarter of the states and the District of Columbia, and more states are likely to come on board. The federal government should give the states that choose to do so the opportunity to make marijuana available to patients without putting them in danger of prosecution.

There is a simple way to do it. We have many drugs that are legal for medical use but illegal otherwise. We have no problem distinguishing between chronic pain patients who use prescription medications and the outlaws who sell pills on the street. There is even a parallel pharmaceutical distribution system overseen by the state that distributes methadone to narcotics addicts.

Why can’t marijuana have a similar status? Maine’s congressional delegation should apply some pressure to end a disconnect that puts state residents in legal jeopardy.