A series of recent votes on Capitol Hill suggest that the medical marijuana issue is causing fissures in what is becoming an increasingly shaky consensus in support of harsh anti-drug measures in Congress. While none of the votes resulted in victories for drug reformers, they appear to signal a growing acceptance of medical marijuana in Congress and the emergence of a partisan divide on drug policy, at least at the national political level.
In the last two weeks, hearings on the nomination of Karen Tandy as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office), and the Barr Amendment barring Washington, DC, from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana program have provided the opportunity for critics of the Bush administration's hard-line drug policies to step up and fight back. The result has been criticism of the drug war the likes of which has never been heard on the Hill.
On Tuesday in the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Sam Farr introduced an amendment to the Barr Amendment that would have allowed medical marijuana laws to be enacted in the District. The amendment would have allowed the city to use municipal instead of federal funds to implement a medical marijuana program. While that amendment failed on 35-16 vote, the number of yes votes was the highest yet, and while every Republican voted against the measure, roughly 80% of committee Democrats voted for it. Of Democrats voting no, all but one were from the South. And Farr requested a roll call vote, thus putting the representatives on the record as being for or against medical marijuana in the District.
The debate also saw heated words from Democrats, including ranking Appropriations Committee member Rep. David Obey (D-WI), who lashed out at the GOP. "Nothing makes me more angry than this issue," he said. "When I decide what I want on the way out, or what a family member needs on the way out," he continued, "It's none of your damn business!" he shouted, pointing directly at Republicans on the committee.
Last Wednesday, the action was in the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 2003. Unlike previous years, committee Democrats did not merely rubberstamp the bill, but used the hearings as an opportunity to attack the Bush administration not only on its medical marijuana policy, but also on the drug war in general. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) offered two amendments, one that would have barred the drug czar from intervening in state elections or initiatives related to medical marijuana and one that would have barred the drug czar from approving the budget of any agency that used its funds to arrest medical marijuana patients. While both amendments failed, all Democrats present voted for the latter. There was no roll call vote on the former.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) went even further. She introduced an amendment that would have killed the entire ONDCP reauthorization bill. The drug czar's office is "wasteful, ineffective, and unworthy," Waters said, and the bill is "not worth the paper it is printed on." Surprisingly, 10 of 11 Democrats present voted for the Waters amendment. It failed in the face of solid Republican opposition, but egged on by Waters, other Democrats went on the attack.
The war on drugs is a "dismal failure," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC), adding that there is nothing he finds more embarrassing than the federal government's drug policy. Reps. Nadler and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) also ripped the war on drugs -- "we are falling on our own sword," said Jackson-Lee -- while ranking minority member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) criticized the huge and growing number of prisoners filling US jails with nonviolent drug offenders. In all, committee Democrats offered up nine anti-drug war amendments, all of which failed on near party line votes.
And that same week, Karen Tandy, the Bush administration's nominee to head the DEA, ran into unprecedented opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee. While the committee approved her nomination on a voice vote, some Senate Democrats harshly criticized both Tandy and the Bush administration's persecution of medical marijuana patients and providers. Tandy had provided written answers to earlier questions, but her position on DEA raids against medical marijuana remained steadfast.
"If I am confirmed as administrator of the DEA, it will be my duty to see to the uniform enforcement of federal law," Tandy wrote. "I do not believe it would be consistent with that duty for me to support a moratorium on enforcement of this law, or any law, in selected areas of the country." Besides, she wrote, while THC may have some medicinal value when processed into Marinol, "marijuana itself, however, has not been shown to have medical benefits."
Tandy might want to take a look at the Institute of Medicine report on the medical uses of marijuana commissioned by former drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, fumed Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who also questioned whether the DEA should "continue to focus its limited resources on the question of medical marijuana." Saying Tandy "didn't back off an inch" in the face of concerns about the medical marijuana raids, Durbin pointedly cast a no vote against her nomination. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) voted to approve Tandy's nomination, but not before heaping additional complaints on her. Tandy "doesn't seem amenable to listening" to popular concerns about the raids, Feinstein grumbled. Rescheduling marijuana might be necessary, she suggested.
Taken together, the clashes on Capitol Hill over drug policy in general and medical marijuana in particular in the last two weeks demonstrate both an increasing sympathy for medical marijuana, at least among Democrats, and the beginnings of a partisan divide over drug policy. "That's definitely the case. We've seen the Democrats becoming very critical and outspoken," said Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance's (http://www.drugpolicy.org) Washington office. "They are attacking the DEA raids, they are trying to stop the drug czar from campaigning against initiatives. At the Tandy nomination, we saw for the first time direct criticism directed at the DEA nominee over these raids. And they are attacking the drug war in general."
"The Democrats, at least, are finally confronting reality," said Steve Fox, director of governmental relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.marijuanapolicy.org). "They are finding that medical marijuana is not only real, but popular, and the justifications for opposing it are beginning to sound ridiculous. The Republicans haven't figured this out yet. Not enough of them know about how Bob Barr was defeated." (Barr, one of the most rabid drug warriors in Congress, lost in the Republican primary last year, at least in part because he was targeted by medical marijuana advocates and the Libertarian Party for his drug war views (http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/251/barrdefeated.shtml). "Hopefully next year we'll be able to play a larger role in the elections and make these people realize there is a price to pay for opposing medical marijuana."
Still, Fox is not convinced that medical marijuana is the issue that will lead to the unraveling of the war on drugs. "It is clear that the Bush administration is overreaching on the medical marijuana issue, and this is showing people how foolish our drug policies are. It is also raising issues of priorities, fiscal responsibility, and compassion -- why are we wasting our time and money on this? The same arguments you can make about medical marijuana, you can make about other drug policies," he said. "But on the other hand, while medical marijuana is a drug reform issue, it is also an issue that is outside of drug reform. It is basically a health and privacy issue -- should the federal government be telling patients and doctors what to do? You don't have to be a supporter of drug reform to support medical marijuana, and it remains to be seen if support for that will bleed over into other areas of drug policy. The Republicans accuse us of using medical marijuana as a wedge issue for legalization, but that's not true. Anyone in his right mind would support it."
Nor is he certain that a partisan divide on drug policy will be etched in stone. "I don't see this as a divide that will last forever or one that holds true once you get to the state and local level," he said. "In states where we've been active, we had a GOP-controlled House in Vermont and a Republican governor in Maryland supporting medical marijuana, and similar support in other states. Congress is just a crazy place," Fox said. And many Republicans are voting no reflexively, he added. "For the most part, these are party line votes, and it takes a lot to move someone to the other side. They have to have a reason to break party discipline, and we haven't given them one yet. Even now, most politicians think the support for medical marijuana is wide but not deep. Until we can prove otherwise, there is no reason for them to chance being seen as soft on drugs."
MPP is working on that, Fox said. "Next year, we'll do a massive voter education effort to help a moderate Republican lose a race. It would take the loss of just one person, say Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA), to change the entire dynamic. We have a real strong desire to educate members of her district."