In a surprising show of strength for medical marijuana, more than 150 members of the US House of Representatives voted Wednesday for an amendment to the appropriations bill funding the departments of Justice, Commerce and State that would have barred Attorney General John Ashcroft from using federal marijuana laws against medical marijuana patients and providers in states that have legalized the practice. But the vote also demonstrated the continuing strength and persistence of the prohibitionist opposition, with the amendment being defeated by a roll call vote of 152-273.
Spurred by continuing SWAT-style DEA raids on and federal prosecutions of medical marijuana providers in California during the Bush administration, New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) sponsored the amendment with California Dana Rohrabacher (R), which read: "None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used to prevent the States of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington from implementing State laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana in those States."
The vote marked the first time the entire House has held a roll call vote on the issue since 1998, when a non-binding resolution condemning medical marijuana passed by a margin of 311-94. But while the increase in favorable votes is significant, the nature of the debate that took place suggests that congressional drug warriors and their arguments still carry a lot of weight in the House -- no matter how lame some drug reformers find them.
After Hinchey introduced the amendment, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) commenced the attack by producing a letter from the Grand Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police opposing it, warning that the amendment could be a "significant disruptive effect" on drug crime prevention, that "marijuana is the most abused drug in America" and that blocking federal persecution of medical marijuana "sends the wrong message."
Those themes were elaborated on, embellished, and added to by a largely familiar cast of House prohibitionists. Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) touched all those bases, then added that he had recently met with Dutch officials, and "even that nation, which is generally recognized for its extremely liberal drug policies, specifically has rejected the use of smoked marijuana for so-called 'medicinal purposes,' which these state referendums do not do." [Souder's claim should be news to Dutch pharmacists, who now stock government-approved medical marijuana on their shelves (http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/279/dutchmedmj.shtml).]
Following Souder's lead, Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) warned that there is no such thing as medical marijuana, marijuana today makes the user "shockingly, dramatically" higher than in his youth, and that marijuana was a "precursor drug." Oh yes, and "the people were led astray" by big-spending outsiders who have "outspent opponents of these measures by two, three, four, five, ten times." But Shadegg's philippic was one-upped by veteran anti-drug crusader Rep. John Mica (R-FL), who scoffed at Shadegg's weasel words on marijuana potency. "There is a several hundred percent increase in potency in what is on the market," he claimed. "Everything we do towards trying to glorify or utilize marijuana for whatever use or whatever purpose does lead more of our young people to use this. Marijuana is a gateway drug, and so we end up with a death toll that we have seen so painfully across this nation."
But in the midst of what medical marijuana activists consider the lies, distortions, and misrepresentations of the congressional prohibitionists, one of them, Virginia's Rep. Frank Wolf (R), at the end of the night spoke words that both explain the opposition's immunity to rational argument and have the ring of truth. "Mr. Chairman, this is really a cultural issue," Wolfe said. "That is what this is all about. It is about the culture, nothing else."
Wolf's words offer a simple explanation for how a majority of the House could ignore the eloquently presented appeals to compassion, science and reason made by the amendment's supporters: It's not about that. But the amendment's supporters argued as if it were. "This is not about legalization of marijuana," Rep. Farr told his colleagues. "This is just saying, Federal Government, where those States have adopted those laws, just stay off their backs... This amendment provides States with voter-given authority to promulgate regulations to control the limited, limited, limited use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It is an amendment about States' rights. It is about the sacredness of the electoral process and the sanctity of the citizens' votes. It is about treating people as they have instructed their government to do so."
"I ask, can we truly be so lacking in compassion?" added Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a long-shot Democratic presidential candidate who has taken a strong, progressive stand not only on medical marijuana but on drug policy reform in general. Taking a pot shot at the Bush administration, Kucinich added that it is worth reflecting on the context of "the law enforcement policies of an administration which cannot effectively meet the challenge of international terrorism, but is ready to wage a phony drug war, including locking up people dying of cancer simply because those poor souls seek relief from horrible pain."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) tried cool reason. "The fact of the matter is, we ought to let doctors prescribe the medicines they feel would be most effective for their patients," he said. "It is not up to us to stand up on the floor of this House and declare with the expertise of the politicians that we are that marijuana, or morphine, or tetracycline is not an effective drug. That is the job of the doctors and the medical professionals to make those judgments."
But it was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who hit the emotional buttons to best effect. Calling the caging of medical marijuana patients and providers "a travesty" and bluntly declaring that "the drug war is a miserable failure," he then got personal with his colleagues. "My mother passed away about four or five years ago," he said. "One of the factors in my determination tonight to stand up here before you is that I remember when the doctor told me that she had lost her appetite and I was going to have to feed her. I was very pleased that I had voted for making the medical use of marijuana legal because I could not look at myself in the face knowing that I had done that to other people who were confronted by their mother. What are we doing to someone, and they do not have to be critically ill. What about an older person that has lost their appetite and their will to live? If a doctor thinks it is going to help them to use marijuana, it is immoral for us to try to put people in jail who are moving to alleviate that type of horror that people have in their own lives."
Still, the amendment failed. And if the vote was an example of cultural war, it appears to be a cultural war that is taking on increasingly partisan coloration, at least when it comes to medical marijuana. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats voted for the amendment, while nine out of ten Republicans voted against.
"It is becoming somewhat of a partisan issue at the national level," said Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) associate director for national affairs Bill Piper, who worked the Hill for the amendment, "but you have to remember that the Republican leadership opposed the amendment and Republicans were under pressure to toe the party line. The fact that 15 of them bucked the leadership and voted for it shows there is support even among Republican representatives." Still, Piper conceded, "the lopsidedness of the vote show that the Democrats understand this issue and see it as something they can use against the Republicans. But even if there is a partisan tinge, this is an issue that cuts across ideological lines."
Drug reformers and medical marijuana advocates are claiming a symbolic victory. "This shows real progress toward reform of the nation's medical marijuana laws," said Darrell Rogers, incoming acting executive director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org), one of the groups that had been working the Hill. "Our efforts are starting to pay off. Considering that they are comparing drug law reformers and marijuana users to terrorists these days, I think we did pretty well."
Piper agreed. "This vote shows how powerful this issue and the movement behind it is. Some people have been disappointed that the numbers weren't higher, but when you consider what the amendment would have done -- not just stopping raids and prosecutions, but barring any funds to undermine medical marijuana initiatives, barring funds to appeal the Rosenthal case -- asking members to pass something like that is pretty radical," he said. "We're thrilled. We feel like we have a floor of 152 votes, and we'll keep doing this until we get over the top. A message has been sent to Bush and Ashcroft: There are political consequences to arresting medical marijuana patients and caregivers. Maybe they'll think twice now before conducting another raid."
As for the recalcitrant Republicans, said Rogers, they just need a little bit more time and pressure to come around. "They need to see that they should be supporting their voters and not worrying about the Justice Department."
But while the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) noted that advocates were "cheered" by the growing number of allies, it took a tougher tone than others. "By defeating this amendment, the House today guaranteed that patients battling cancer, AIDS, MS, and other terrible illnesses who find relief from medical marijuana will continue to be rousted out of their beds by armed DEA agents, arrested, handcuffed, and jailed," said MPP director of government relations Steve Fox. "This will happen even in states where the voters or state legislators have acted to protect patients from just this sort of cruelty and violence."
"It is particularly shocking that only 15 Republicans -- who regularly advocate for states' rights and reduced federal power -- voted to end the DEA's attacks on the sick," Fox continued. "Nevertheless, the 152 votes in favor of protecting patients represent a 62% increase over the last House vote on medical marijuana, so we've made major progress. We are encouraged that more than two-thirds of Democrats voted to protect patients."
To read the debate in its entirety, visit:
Part 1: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v03.n1110.a09.htmlVisit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/july23-yesno.xls to download an Excel spreadsheet -- which you can sort by state, district, Rep's name, party and votes -- containing the results for the medical marijuana and Plan Colombia votes. Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/july23-yesno.pdf for the same document in PDF format, sorted by state then district number.
Visit http://www.mpp.org/pdf/rollcall.pdf to see an ad placed by MPP, DPA and ACLU in the Capitol Hill news outlet Roll Call.