Last Friday, June 4, medical marijuana activists and supporters gathered outside the district offices of more than 100 members of Congress (perhaps as many as 150; reports are still coming in) as the first step in a campaign to win passage this year of the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment. Named for its sponsor, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and its lead cosponsor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the amendment would prevent the US Department of Justice from arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning medical marijuana patients and caregivers in states where medical marijuana is legal under state law. The protests were carefully aimed at lawmakers who had voted against the measure in the past, but who are considered susceptible to political pressure.
From Spokane to Philadelphia, from Albuquerque to Baltimore, activists gathered in small groups to try to persuade, shame, or scare their recalcitrant representatives into supporting a cause that has repeatedly shown broad popular support in polls and at the ballot box in states where citizens have been given the opportunity to put it to a direct vote. A prominent fixture at demonstrations across the country was a flyer with the targeted representative's name appearing before "thinks cancer, MS, and AIDS patients should be sent to federal prison" for using medical marijuana.
In Connecticut, about a dozen activists protesting Rep. Rob Simmons' (R) vote against Hinchey-Rohrabacher last year got a surprise when Simmons himself came out and addressed them. "As you know, there is a great debate on this issue," Simmons said, according to an account in the Norwich Bulletin. "Even here in Connecticut, not everyone is in agreement on this issue, and I haven't seen the evidence yet to convince me to change my view." While Simmons pronounced himself unconvinced, he added that if protestors could provide compelling evidence to the contrary, he would be happy to review it.
That kind of attention impressed demonstrators. "I was very impressed with him being cordial, and literally coming out here," said Mark Braunstein of Quaker Hill, a medical marijuana user and one of the protest organizers. "In terms of his response, I don't think I possibly could have asked for anything more."
Aaron Houston, national field director for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), one of the groups sponsoring the protests, was pleased, but less impressed. "We didn't hear that much from Simmons that was actually encouraging, but the fact that we were having a dialogue could be construed as at least a first step," he told DRCNet. "At the very least, we have his attention."
Joining MPP in coordinating the protests were the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org), and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org), among others. Last year, Hinchey-Rohrabacher got 152 votes on the House floor, coming up 66 votes short of passage. The protests June 4 were designed to start finding those votes. June 4 was chosen to mark the one-year anniversary of the sentencing of Ed Rosenthal, the marijuana cultivation guru convicted on federal marijuana cultivation charges for overseeing a grow authorized by the city of Oakland. In a legal and public relations defeat for the Justice Department, Rosenthal's sentencing judge gave him time served (one day) when he could have sentenced him to 10 years.
In Albuquerque, about 30 people showed up outside the offices of Rep. Heather Wilson (R), reported MPP summer fellow Gabrielle Guzzardo. "I was quite pleased," she told DRCNet. "While Wilson didn't react directly and one of her staffers told a local radio station her position was firm – she worries that legalizing medical marijuana will lead to rampant drug use, including alcohol, he said – we got overwhelming support from passersby. People were honking their horns, yelling approval out their car windows, things like that. We ran out of flyers."
And while Wilson remains intransigent, said Guzzardo, she will pay a price. "We will campaign aggressively against Wilson. I know there are some volunteers here who are going to volunteer to work on the campaign of her Democratic challenger because of her stand," the University of New Mexico student said. And the word is going out. "We got great press coverage from two large state newspapers, two radio stations, and the Spanish language network Univision. All of the coverage was favorable to us, except Univision, which ran a mediocre story."
In seven cities across the country, the campaign organized press conferences to coincide with the protests, said Bill Piper, Director of the Office of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We took out ads in Philadelphia and Baltimore criticizing Rep. Hoeffel (D) in Pennsylvania and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) in Maryland," he told DRCNet. "Cummings is the ranking minority member on the government reform subcommittee and the chair of the congressional black caucus. He is also one of only three members of the caucus to vote against Hinchey-Rohrabacher last year. Those ads generated a good response," said Piper. "People were outraged and upset. We urged them to contact their representatives to tell them that."
The representatives were carefully chosen, said Piper. "We basically decided to target people who voted no last year but might be amenable to persuasion. We could have targeted all 273 no votes, but it is doubtful, for instance, that we could change how Rep. Mark Souder votes," he explained. "Some were state sensitive. We focused on Elijah Cummings because of his position on the government reform subcommittee, but there were a lot of Maryland and Pennsylvania Democrats who voted the wrong way. By singling out one or two, we can make examples of them for all the rest. We can show them that if they vote for medical marijuana, nothing bad will happen to them, but if they vote no, they could have this organized opposition in their district. If a member votes to send cancer patients to prison, we will let the voters know."
A vote on Hinchey-Rohrabacher may came in July, when it is set to be offered as an amendment to the Commerce-Justice-Defense spending bill, said Piper. But he warned that because of election year politics it is possible the spending bill will be dumped into an omnibus appropriations bill, "which would limit the ability to offer different amendments" like Hinchey-Rohrabacher, he said.
In the meantime, organizing to gain the votes to pass Hinchey-Rohrabacher will continue. "This was just the beginning," said Piper.