Feature: House Move to Ban Funds for Federal Raids on Medical Marijuana Patients Gains Support, but Falls Short 6/17/05

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The US House of Representatives Wednesday turned back a measure that would have barred the use of federal funds to go after sick people using pot. The vote came just a week after the US Supreme Court gave federal drug law enforcers the okay to resume arresting and prosecuting medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal. The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, named after cosponsors Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), would have amended the Justice Department appropriations bill for the next fiscal year. But when the smoke cleared after a half-hour of debate Wednesday morning, the measure was defeated by a margin of 161-264.

Capitol Hill press conference supporting Hinchey amendment last month
Although not entirely a party-line vote, the measure fared much better among Democrats, with 146 of 205 voting in favor. On the Republican side of the aisle, only 15 of 229 members voted for Hinchey-Rohrabacher.

While a defeat, Wednesday's vote showed a slow but steady increase in support for medical marijuana on Capitol Hill. The vote count is up by 13 votes over an identical proposal last year.

"Drug czar Walters said medical marijuana was dead as a political issue after the Raich decision, but a week after the Supreme Court decision came down, Congress allocated a lot of time to the issue, and we picked up 13 more votes than last year," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, who has been working the Hill on the issue. "It is notable how seriously Congress took this issue," he told DRCNet. "Last year, we only got 10 or 15 minutes; this year only one other amendment out of 440 got more time than Hinchey-Rohrabacher."

"While we're disappointed that the amendment did not pass, a record 161 House members voted today to stop arresting medical marijuana patients," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in a statement after the vote. "There have been only four House floor votes on medical marijuana in the history of the country, and this one was our best ever."

The House voted 311-94 to oppose medical marijuana in a 1998 non-binding resolution. For the last three years, it has voted on amendments identical to this year's Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, with support dipping slightly last year from 2003's 152 votes in favor. At the same time, opposition to medical marijuana has declined slightly from 273 votes against in 2003 to 268 last year and 264 this year.

The House vote comes in the face of broad public support for medical marijuana, demonstrated most recently with a Mason-Dixon poll released this week. In that poll, 68% of respondents agreed that "the federal government should not prosecute medical marijuana patients," while only 16% said it should.

"With over four-to-one public support for ending medical marijuana arrests, it's astounding that 264 House members would vote to spend taxpayer money to arrest medical marijuana patients in violation of states' rights," said Kampia.

Debate on the measure ran largely as expected, with familiar faces on both sides of the issue staking out their positions. One notable exception was first-time vocal support for the measure by Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "This is just the compassionate way to go," she said. "Compassion is a bipartisan value. We must not make criminals of seriously ill people."

"It is unconscionable that we in Congress could possibly presume to tell a patient that he or she cannot use the only medication that has proven to combat the pain and symptoms associated with a devastating illness," said amendment sponsor Rep. Hinchey.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), sponsor of the "States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act," chided lawmakers about the more hysterical claims of opponents. "This is not a bill to make marijuana generally available and it is not a bill to put it in baby formula," he said.

While Democratic supporters of the amendment emphasized compassion, Republican chief cosponsor Rep. Rohrabacher appealed to more conservative sentiments among his colleagues. "Let's not have a power grab by the federal government at the expense of those poor patients and the right of doctors trying to make these decisions," said Rohrabacher.

But hard-line drug warriors led by Rep. Mark Souder, chair of the House Government Operations Committee's Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources subcommittee, were un-swayed by appeals to conservative principle. "Marijuana has never been proven as safe and effective for any disease," he claimed. "Marijuana can increase the risk of serious mental health problems, and in teens, marijuana use can lead to depression, thoughts of suicide, and schizophrenia."

Doctors who recommend marijuana to patients are "quacks," Souder said, comparing pot to the snake oil medicines purveyed a century ago. Besides, there is always Marinol, the FDA-approved drug containing THC, the most active cannabinoid in marijuana. "You isolate the chemicals to treat the disease, you do not smoke pot," he said.

Rep. Steven King (R-IA) reprised the familiar warning that this was just the camel's nose under the tent. If the amendment passed, King suggested, next thing you know hippies will be smoking joints everywhere. "It's seeking to establish a small sliver of marijuana [in federal law]," he warned, "and eventually be able to legalize this substance."

"Congress is still driven by a fairly narrow ideology when it comes to these issues and influenced by a mythology that has been promulgated for decades," said the Drug Policy Alliance's Piper. "It is not yet ready mentally and psychologically to take a step like this, but we are getting closer, and momentum is on our side. Every poll taken shows that the citizenry understands that the sick people should be able to get the relief cannabis can provide. Congress will come around."

In the meantime, said Piper, the vote sends a warning shot over the bow of the DEA. "The DEA has to understand that raiding patients has political consequences," he said, "and 161 legislators have just told them they don't like it."

And despite drug czar Walters' fond wishes, the battle over access to medical marijuana continues. "The next step is to pass the medical marijuana bills pending in New York and Rhode Island, enact medical marijuana laws in several other states early next year, and then win on Capitol Hill next summer when the House votes on medical marijuana again," said MPP's Kampia. "The momentum is clearly on our side, and we'll keep fighting until Congress listens to the American people and ends this cruel and needless war on the sick."

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Issue #391 -- 6/17/05

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