House Votes Down Medical Marijuana Bill -- Election Year Politics, Organized Opposition Cited 7/9/04

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The US House of Representatives voted Wednesday night to continue to fund Justice Department raids against medical marijuana patients and providers in states that have voted to legalize the use of marijuana for medical reasons. The House voted 268-148 against an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have barred the use of federal funds for such purposes. Last year, a similar amendment garnered four more "yes" votes than this year. Backers of the measure point to election year political pressures and the mobilization of an organized opposition as reasons why support for the measure appears to have hit a ceiling.

The vote fell mainly along partisan lines. Republicans voted against the measure by a margin of more than ten to one, while roughly two out three Democrats supported the measure.

Known last year as the Hinchey Amendment for its sponsor, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), the bipartisan measure this year was known as the Farr-Rohrabacher Amendment for its sponsors Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). Inspired by the aggressive medical marijuana raids dictated by the John Ashcroft Justice Department, the measure has won the support of a growing number of health, medical and religious organizations.

"The outcome is not as bad as it looks," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org), which lobbied for the amendment. "Given the intense opposition we faced and the fact that our opponents were accusing of us killing kids and given the fact that it is an election year, I think we did pretty well," he told DRCNet. "We lost two Republicans who were with us last year, but we picked up six new Republican votes. Similarly, we lost six Democrats, but picked up eight new ones. But we also had 10 Democrats who had voted with us last year who were absent this year."

"It is shocking how out of touch with voters Congress remains on this issue," said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "State and national polling consistently shows overwhelming public support for protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest," Fox added, citing national polls showing support for medical marijuana in the 70-80% range. "Members who mistakenly believe that they cast the politically safe vote by allowing the continuing persecution of cancer and AIDS patients may be in for a surprise."

This year, proponents of reform brought the power of religion to bear. "We managed to get a number of religious denominations to sign a sign-on statement saying patients should not be arrested, and various other denominations have taken different supportive positions in the past," said Charles Thomas, head of the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (http://www.idpi.us). "We are very pleased about that. The United Methodists alone, the country's third largest denomination, count 63 members of Congress," he told DRCNet.

"We did some direct lobbying, we faxed every member's office to let them know about religious support for medical marijuana, and we tailored those faxes to members based on their denominations. We made calls to offices that MPP and DPA had identified as prime targets," Thomas said. "While it is difficult to say what impact we had -- there are so many variables -- we can point to six representatives who voted against last time but for this time who are members of these denominations. And," he pointed out, "of the 14 new yes votes, we lobbied five of those offices." (Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/324/idpi.shtml to read our interview with Thomas.)

But even the power of the divine could not compete with an opposition that at times verged on Reefer Madness-style arguments. "This is a bad amendment," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). "It will be bad for the country. The amendment does not address the problem of marijuana abuse and possibly, perhaps probably, makes it worse by sending a message to young people that there can be health benefits from smoking marijuana. The message that this sends to the young people is absolutely wrong," Wolf said, managing not to mention the medical uses of marijuana at all.

It was Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) who trumped everyone for sheer political theater. Holding up a poster of a teenage girl who had died after using ecstasy, Souder sought to blame medical marijuana for her death. "When we as Members use phrases like 'medical marijuana' and responsible officials imply that drugs like marijuana are medical, tragedies like this happen," claimed Souder, one of Congress' leading drug warriors. After the girl, Irma Perez, "overdosed" on ecstasy, said Souder, "her friends had heard that marijuana was medical, and instead of getting her to a doctor, where they said she would have been saved, they gave her marijuana on top of her ecstasy and she died."

Souder also entered into the record a letter from the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (http://www.cadca.org), the anti-drug group sponsored in part by Pharmatech and Purdue Pharma, the makers of Oxycontin. CADCA urged defeat of the amendment "not only because marijuana is an illegal, addictive Schedule I drug, with no medicinal value, but also because this sends the entirely wrong message to the youth of America... The efforts of the drug legalization movement, to promote the myth of 'medical' marijuana and to stifle the efforts of law enforcement agencies to enforce federal law severely dilutes the prevention efforts that community anti-drug coalitions across America are undertaking to communicate marijuana is dangerous, it has serious consequences, and is illegal," wrote CADCA director Gen. Arthur T. Dean. "The amendment is offered under the guise of compassion towards seriously ill patients, when in reality it is a 'Trojan horse' to legalize marijuana," Dean warned.

The amendment's sponsors tried to counteract such arguments, but to little avail. "The purpose of this amendment is very straightforward," said Rep. Farr. "In simple terms, the amendment prohibits the use of funds in the bill from preventing States that have medical marijuana laws from implementing them," he explained. "This amendment does not stop law enforcement officials from prosecuting illegal use of marijuana. This amendment does not encourage the use of marijuana. This amendment does not encourage the use of drugs in children. This amendment does not legalize any drugs. This amendment does not change the classification of marijuana," he pointed out.

But such logic could not prevail in the face of an organized opposition and the looming elections. "The opposition was effective in trying to make this into a controversial vote," said DPA's Piper. "Last year, we operated under the radar until the last minute, and groups like CADCA, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the Fraternal Order of Police, the drug czar, and the Justice Department were caught off guard. This year, the cat was already out of the bag, and all these groups organized against us," he explained.

"Obviously, we are disappointed that we didn't do better, but we are optimistic because even though the opposition was organized and threw everything it had at us in an election year, we still came out about the same as last year," said Piper. "We tried to show people that voting yes was nothing to worry about, but there is still a gut feeling among members that the issue is politically risky. Our goal is to turn that around and send a message to members that if they vote in favor of sending cancer patients to jail, they won't be getting a free pass. And that will put us in a better position for next year, which is not an election year. If we do a good enough job, people may be afraid to vote against it instead of afraid to vote for it."

"As a movement, we need to figure out how to do much better next time," said IDPI's Thomas. "Despite outstanding lobbying efforts from MPP and DPA and others, we still ended up with a lower vote total. We are happy that we and the broader movement organized groups and got our information out to Congress, but we need to figure out how to have a more significant impact."

Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/medicalmarijuana/ for the Rep. by Rep. vote results and other information and resources.

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Issue #345, 7/9/04 Editorial: Time for Congress to Get Real | In the Wake of Blakely: Federal Sentencing Chaos as Defense Attorneys, Prosecutors, Lawmakers Ponder How to Respond | House Votes Down Medical Marijuana Bill -- Election Year Politics, Organized Opposition Cited | International AIDS Conference Puts Focus on Thai War on Drugs | Making it Official: More Initiatives Move Toward November Ballot | ALERT: "Thank or Spank" Your Congressman for This Week's Medical Marijuana Vote | Newsbrief: Rep. Ron Paul Brings Pain Doctor Prosecution Issue to House | Newsbrief: US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects DEA Motion for New Hemp Hearing | Newsbrief: Kansas Supreme Court Says Cut Methamphetamine Sentences | Newsbrief: Tommy Chong Walks Out of Prison | Newsbrief: Iranians Protest US, UK Blind Eye to Afghan Opium Crop | Newsbrief: United Arab Emirates Ponders First Step Toward Harm Reduction | Newsbrief: Head of National Drug Intelligence Center Fired | Newsbrief: Prohibition as a Marketing Tool -- Camel Ad Campaign Touts "Forbidden Fruit" Appeal | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: California Prisons "Dysfunctional," State Report Concludes | Movie Opening: Maria Full of Grace | Media Scan: New CSDP Ad -- Richard Paey and Rush Limbaugh | This Week in History | Psilocybin Cancer Research Study Still Seeking Participants | The Reformer's Calendar
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