In a surprising show of strength for medical marijuana, more than 150
members of the US House of Representatives voted Wednesday for an
amendment to the appropriations bill funding the departments of
Justice, Commerce and State that would have barred Attorney General
John Ashcroft from using federal marijuana laws against medical
marijuana patients and providers in states that have legalized the
practice. But the vote also demonstrated the continuing strength and
persistence of the prohibitionist opposition, with the amendment being
defeated by a roll call vote of 152-273.

Spurred by continuing SWAT-style DEA raids on and federal prosecutions
of medical marijuana providers in California during the Bush
administration, New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) sponsored the
amendment with California Dana Rohrabacher (R), which read: "None of
the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may
be used to prevent the States of Alaska, Arizona, California,
Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington from
implementing State laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana in
those States."

The vote marked the first time the entire House has held a roll call
vote on the issue since 1998, when a non-binding resolution condemning
medical marijuana passed by a margin of 311-94. But while the increase
in favorable votes is significant, the nature of the debate that took
place suggests that congressional drug warriors and their arguments
still carry a lot of weight in the House -- no matter how lame some
drug reformers find them.

After Hinchey introduced the amendment, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA)
commenced the attack by producing a letter from the Grand Lodge of the
Fraternal Order of Police opposing it, warning that the amendment
could be a "significant disruptive effect" on drug crime prevention,
that "marijuana is the most abused drug in America" and that blocking
federal persecution of medical marijuana "sends the wrong message."

Those themes were elaborated on, embellished, and added to by a
largely familiar cast of House prohibitionists. Rep. Mark Souder
(R-IN) touched all those bases, then added that he had recently met
with Dutch officials, and "even that nation, which is generally
recognized for its extremely liberal drug policies, specifically has
rejected the use of smoked marijuana for so-called 'medicinal
purposes,' which these state referendums do not do." [Souder's claim
should be news to Dutch pharmacists, who now stock government-approved
medical marijuana on their shelves

Following Souder's lead, Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) warned that there is
no such thing as medical marijuana, marijuana today makes the user
"shockingly, dramatically" higher than in his youth, and that
marijuana was a "precursor drug." Oh yes, and "the people were led
astray" by big-spending outsiders who have "outspent opponents of
these measures by two, three, four, five, ten times." But Shadegg's
philippic was one-upped by veteran anti-drug crusader Rep. John Mica
(R-FL), who scoffed at Shadegg's weasel words on marijuana potency.
"There is a several hundred percent increase in potency in what is on
the market," he claimed. "Everything we do towards trying to glorify
or utilize marijuana for whatever use or whatever purpose does lead
more of our young people to use this. Marijuana is a gateway drug, and
so we end up with a death toll that we have seen so painfully across
this nation."

But in the midst of what medical marijuana activists consider the
lies, distortions, and misrepresentations of the congressional
prohibitionists, one of them, Virginia's Rep. Frank Wolf (R), at the
end of the night spoke words that both explain the opposition's
immunity to rational argument and have the ring of truth. "Mr.
Chairman, this is really a cultural issue," Wolfe said. "That is what
this is all about. It is about the culture, nothing else."

Wolf's words offer a simple explanation for how a majority of the
House could ignore the eloquently presented appeals to compassion,
science and reason made by the amendment's supporters: It's not about
that. But the amendment's supporters argued as if it were. "This is
not about legalization of marijuana," Rep. Farr told his colleagues.
"This is just saying, Federal Government, where those States have
adopted those laws, just stay off their backs... This amendment
provides States with voter-given authority to promulgate regulations
to control the limited, limited, limited use of marijuana for
medicinal purposes. It is an amendment about States' rights. It is
about the sacredness of the electoral process and the sanctity of the
citizens' votes. It is about treating people as they have instructed
their government to do so."

"I ask, can we truly be so lacking in compassion?" added Rep. Dennis
Kucinich, a long-shot Democratic presidential candidate who has taken
a strong, progressive stand not only on medical marijuana but on drug
policy reform in general. Taking a pot shot at the Bush
administration, Kucinich added that it is worth reflecting on the
context of "the law enforcement policies of an administration which
cannot effectively meet the challenge of international terrorism, but
is ready to wage a phony drug war, including locking up people dying
of cancer simply because those poor souls seek relief from horrible

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) tried cool reason. "The fact of the matter
is, we ought to let doctors prescribe the medicines they feel would be
most effective for their patients," he said. "It is not up to us to
stand up on the floor of this House and declare with the expertise of
the politicians that we are that marijuana, or morphine, or
tetracycline is not an effective drug. That is the job of the doctors
and the medical professionals to make those judgments."

But it was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who hit the emotional buttons
to best effect. Calling the caging of medical marijuana patients and
providers "a travesty" and bluntly declaring that "the drug war is a
miserable failure," he then got personal with his colleagues. "My
mother passed away about four or five years ago," he said. "One of the
factors in my determination tonight to stand up here before you is
that I remember when the doctor told me that she had lost her appetite
and I was going to have to feed her. I was very pleased that I had
voted for making the medical use of marijuana legal because I could
not look at myself in the face knowing that I had done that to other
people who were confronted by their mother. What are we doing to
someone, and they do not have to be critically ill. What about an
older person that has lost their appetite and their will to live? If a
doctor thinks it is going to help them to use marijuana, it is immoral
for us to try to put people in jail who are moving to alleviate that
type of horror that people have in their own lives."

Still, the amendment failed. And if the vote was an example of
cultural war, it appears to be a cultural war that is taking on
increasingly partisan coloration, at least when it comes to medical
marijuana. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats voted for the amendment,
while nine out of ten Republicans voted against.

"It is becoming somewhat of a partisan issue at the national level,"
said Drug Policy Alliance ( associate
director for national affairs Bill Piper, who worked the Hill for the
amendment, "but you have to remember that the Republican leadership
opposed the amendment and Republicans were under pressure to toe the
party line. The fact that 15 of them bucked the leadership and voted
for it shows there is support even among Republican representatives."
Still, Piper conceded, "the lopsidedness of the vote show that the
Democrats understand this issue and see it as something they can use
against the Republicans. But even if there is a partisan tinge, this
is an issue that cuts across ideological lines."

Drug reformers and medical marijuana advocates are claiming a symbolic
victory. "This shows real progress toward reform of the nation's
medical marijuana laws," said Darrell Rogers, incoming acting
executive director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy
(, one of the groups that had been working the
Hill. "Our efforts are starting to pay off. Considering that they are
comparing drug law reformers and marijuana users to terrorists these
days, I think we did pretty well."

Piper agreed. "This vote shows how powerful this issue and the movement
behind it is. Some people have been disappointed that the numbers weren't
higher, but when you consider what the amendment would have done -- not
just stopping raids and prosecutions, but barring any funds to undermine
medical marijuana initiatives, barring funds to appeal the Rosenthal case
- -- asking members to pass something like that is pretty radical," he said.
"We're thrilled. We feel like we have a floor of 152 votes, and we'll keep
doing this until we get over the top. A message has been sent to Bush and
Ashcroft: There are political consequences to arresting medical marijuana
patients and caregivers. Maybe they'll think twice now before conducting
another raid."

As for the recalcitrant Republicans, said Rogers, they just need a
little bit more time and pressure to come around. "They need to see
that they should be supporting their voters and not worrying about the
Justice Department."

But while the Marijuana Policy Project ( noted that
advocates were "cheered" by the growing number of allies, it took a
tougher tone than others. "By defeating this amendment, the House
today guaranteed that patients battling cancer, AIDS, MS, and other
terrible illnesses who find relief from medical marijuana will
continue to be rousted out of their beds by armed DEA agents,
arrested, handcuffed, and jailed," said MPP director of government
relations Steve Fox. "This will happen even in states where the voters
or state legislators have acted to protect patients from just this
sort of cruelty and violence."

"It is particularly shocking that only 15 Republicans -- who regularly
advocate for states' rights and reduced federal power -- voted to end
the DEA's attacks on the sick," Fox continued. "Nevertheless, the 152
votes in favor of protecting patients represent a 62% increase over
the last House vote on medical marijuana, so we've made major
progress. We are encouraged that more than two-thirds of Democrats
voted to protect patients."

Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jul 2003
Source: The Week Online with DRCNet (US Web)