For the fourth consecutive year, an effort is underway in Congress to stop the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from arresting and prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers in the 11 states where it is legal.
The amendment responds to a real need: According to Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana defense group pushing for the amendment, at least 20 California dispensaries and collectives have been raided by the feds since the Supreme Court gave the DEA a green light with its decision in the Raich case almost a year ago. In that case, the court held that federal law making marijuana illegal superseded -- but did not invalidate -- any state medical marijuana laws.
"We are talking about at least two very important issues here," Rep. Hinchey told DRCNet Wednesday. "One is the ability to alleviate the conditions of people who are suffering from serious illnesses, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. A study done by the Institute of Medicine under the auspices of the National Academy of Science found that marijuana used under a physician's recommendation can have very significant and salutary benefits for people suffering from those conditions. The idea that we would deprive human beings of relief recommended by a licensed physician is not humanitarian; it's inhumane. It's a really bad thing to do," Hinchey said.
"We have an administration whose Justice Department is interfering with that kind of medical practice, and we have a recent 5-4 Supreme Court decision which to some extent backs them up. That decision and the actions of the Justice Department are frankly inexplicable because what we're dealing with here is a decision by either the legislative bodies or the people themselves through referenda to provide this kind of medical relief and assistance to their citizens," Hinchey continued from his Capitol Hill office.
"Under the Constitution, these kinds of decisions are not in the hands of the federal government; they are in the hands of the states," said Hinchey, who represents a district in New York's Southern Tier. "Eleven states have decided they want to provide this kind of relief to their citizens, and now the federal government is sticking its nose in somebody else's business and trying to impede those decisions. That is just inappropriate, unconstitutional, and shouldn't be allowed. This amendment is designed put a stop to it."
Support for Hinchey-Rohrabacher is trending upward. In 2003, it got 152 votes. In 2004, an election year, support dropped to 148 votes, but rose to 161 last year. It takes 218 votes to ensure passage in the House. Supporters said they expected to make significant gains in next week's vote, although none was bold enough to predict victory this year.
Although the bill is cosponsored by California Republican Rep. Rohrabacher, voting has hardly been bipartisan. Last year, 145 Democrats voted for the amendment, while only 15 Republicans did.
With a floor vote expected next Wednesday or Thursday, the measure's sponsors and a coalition of drug reform groups, including the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), ASA, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), DRCNet and others are going into high gear. "This is the final push," said MPP director of government relations Aaron Houston. "We've really been trying to connect with members of Congress. I have a good feeling about this year."
"We're trying to lean on all the swing votes right now," said Bill Piper, DPA head of national affairs. "We've been dropping off materials to members, and we'll be sending out an action alert this week," he told DRCNet. "We're definitely going to pick up votes. The real question is how many, and whether we will lose any because it's an election year, but I suspect our numbers will go up significantly."
With Democrats already generally supporting the amendment -- 70% of them voted for it last year -- reformers are also reaching out to Republicans. "We're aiming at both parties, of course, but we emphasized working on the Republicans earlier this year," Piper said. "We've hit a ceiling of sorts with Democrats. We will pick some more Democrats up, but there are so many more Republicans who could vote yes, and I think that's where we'll see out biggest gains."
"We're optimistic," said Piper. "Everyone is expecting to pick up votes and keep the momentum going. If we could get almost all the Democrats to vote for this, we would win, assuming Republican support stayed the same. And there are a lot of conservative House Republicans that are very frustrated with the White House and the drug czar. They might be willing to send a message to the DEA and the Justice Department that the money used to go after medical marijuana patients could be used to go after methamphetamine. If we get a significant vote increase, that would be a strong message that they need to think again."
"We had 27 meetings on the Hill," exclaimed ASA executive director Steph Sherer, who recently relocated to Washington. "We had a group of doctors, scientists, and patients and we went to see the toughest congressional targets," she told DRCNet. "This was the first time some of these people had ever met a patient, doctor, or scientist talking about this. I don't know whether they will support it this year, but I think we're opening a dialogue that will lead to long-term solutions for medical marijuana at the federal level."
MPP is also aiming at Republicans, said Houston. "We've got a GOP lobbying team of six people, all Republicans, all but one from groups not focused on drug policy," he told DRCNet. That team includes an Eagle Foundation education lobbyist, a Republican banking committee staffer, and a Republican Connecticut state legislator, Houston said. "These are conservative Republican organizations," he pointed out.
On the West Coast, the group has also enlisted Alex Holstein, a former executive director of the Republican Party of San Diego County, to enlist GOP support. Now head of the California Coalition for Compassionate Access, Holstein is urging Republicans to stand by conservative values in supporting the amendment.
"Local control and reduced federal authority are lynchpin Republican principles," he said. "We're asking our fellow Republicans to stand by those principles and end federal interference with the decisions made by states like California to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest and prosecution."
"States' rights is something many Republicans agree with on its face," said MPP's Houston, "and it will get some major traction if Republicans are willing to buck their party. States' rights will be the key argument for many Republicans. Protecting medical marijuana patients is entirely consistent with Republican small government states' rights principles. Republicans who vote against this amendment are showing a nanny-state liberal tendency to interfere in the lives of sick people."
Emphasizing states' rights is one way of appealing to Republicans, agreed Rep. Hinchey, who addressed a fundraising gala for MPP in New York City earlier this month. "Interfering with relief for people who are suffering in states that have approved medical marijuana unconstitutionally impedes states' rights. It's very clear," he said. "The practice of medicine is something that has been controlled by the states from the very beginning of the republic. We have picked up a few votes from principled Republicans who seem to understand this, and we hope we can find a few more."
"I have a good feeling about this year," said Houston. "The fact that the administration is in such hot water right now with congressional Republicans will probably hurt party discipline, and with the Hammer gone," a reference to recently departed House Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX), "we might see more Republicans actually willing to vote their consciences and stand up for states' rights rather than blindly following the administration's anti-science and cruel and heartless policy of arresting patients."
"You never know what's going to happen," said Hinchey, refusing to make a prediction on the outcome. "There are some people with their fingers in the air testing the wind."