One of the House's leading drug war zealots has introduced a bill to preempt the wave of successful initiatives designed to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The bill, introduced by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), would also render impotent any state initiatives or legislation attempting to reform laws dealing with any controlled substance.
House Bill 4802, introduced by Souder on June 29th, says Congress will supersede any state or local laws that:
"permit or purport to authorize the use, growing, manufacture, distribution, or importation by an individual or group of marijuana or any controlled substance which differs from the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act... Any law, regulation, or ordinance purporting to establish such different requirement, prohibition, or standard shall be null and void."
The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Commerce committees.
Voters in seven states and the District of Columbia have passed initiatives to legalize medical marijuana. Hawaii recently became the first state to decriminalize medical marijuana through the legislative process.
Souder said efforts to make medical use legal "is just a phony excuse to be a pothead."
That didn't sit well with Dr. Rick Bayer, one of two chief petitioners in Oregon's successful 1996 medical marijuana initiative. Bayer, an MD who practices internal medicine, told DRCNet, "That's ridiculous. He obviously has no idea what it's like to try to practice medicine and try to take care of people will serious and terminal illnesses."
"I'm outraged to have a congressman or cop try to tell me how to treat a patient," growled Bayer.
Souder has also taken some hits on the home front, first in an exchange of letters with NORML executive director Keith Stroup published in his hometown paper, the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, and then from the Journal-Gazette's own editorial page. (Go to http://www.jg.net/jg/ and search their archives for "medical marijuana.")
The newspaper attacked Souder for insulting the intelligence of voters in states that have chosen the medical marijuana route, for suggesting that their votes could be "bought" by George Soros, for belittling patients' suffering, and, most emphatically, for violating conservative principles of individual freedom and states' rights.
Stroup told DRCNet that Souder's bill had little chance of passing.
"Souder wants to wipe out the will of the voters with a stroke of the pen in Congress," said Stroup. "I doubt many members are willing to make that statement, because they respect basic tenets of democracy."
"His zealotry is overwhelming his common sense here," added Stroup. "This doesn't strike me as necessarily sophisticated," he said, "trying to accomplish that which cannot be done."
Citing the Constitution's supremacy clause, Souder argued that states cannot pass laws that contradict federal law, thus state laws to relax drug penalties can have no effect.
Souder wrote that his bill would ensure that "the longstanding federal laws against the use of marijuana and narcotic drugs take precedence over efforts to change those laws in the states."
He called it a "technical matter."
Stroup disagreed on several counts. "Contrary to the overly simplistic analysis offered by the congressman," wrote Stroup, "not all federal laws overrule state law. In fact, only when Congress specifically declares its intentions to usurp the field does federal law trump state law, and no such declaration has been made regarding marijuana policy."
"Souder is trying to declare the intent of Congress," Stroup told DRCNet, "and if he were successful then all of a sudden federal law would overrule state laws. But not now."
Stroup told DRCNet his argument was based on an analysis of the issue done by the California Legislative Council prior to the passage of Proposition 215, the state's medical marijuana initiative. That research found that the Controlled Substances Act, the bedrock legislation of the drug laws, did not declare any Congressional intent to supersede state laws.
Also, said Stroup, the council concluded that the supremacy clause kicks in only when state and federal laws are in direct conflict.
"Were a state to decide to set up a legally regulated market, as the Oregon initiative proposes, that would be a direct conflict and the feds would override the state law," said Stroup. "But a state could constitutionally remove all drug laws, and that would not be a direct conflict."
In most cases, Stroup said, the drafters of medical marijuana initiatives have avoided direct conflicts with federal law on the advice of their attorneys.
For Dr. Bayer it less a matter of constitutional subtleties than an attack on the free practice of medicine relationship within the context of a broader assault on fundamental freedoms.
"This would be an extreme violation of the doctor-patient relationship," said Bayer. "Congressman Souder should not be practicing medicine."
"It sounds like he's trying to be a tough guy in the war on drugs and promote himself by encouraging the arrest of sick and dying patients. The public will not stand for it," he predicted.
Congressman Souder has quite a track record as a drug war tough guy. Here are some of his more notable quotes and achievements: