Jon Gettman is a long time contributor to HIGH TIMES. A former National Director of NORML, Jon has a Ph.D. in public policy and regional economic development and consults with attorneys, advocates, and non-profits on cannabis related research and public policy issues. On October 8, 2002, along with a coalition of organizations, he filed a new petition to have cannabis rescheduled under federal law. This column will track that petition's progress.

Medical Marijuana and the House of Representatives: Time for a Change

For the fourth year in a row advocates tried and failed to get the House of Representatives to approve legislation to protect medical marijuana patients in some states from federal law enforcement.

The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to legislation for funding the Justice Department (Amendment No. 2 to HR 5672, Roll Call 333) sought to prevent federal funds from being used to arrest medical marijuana patients in the eleven states that medical use of cannabis by some patients is allowed under state law.

The amendment was defeated on a vote of 259 to 163. The amendment received the votes of 18 Republicans, 144 Democrats, and the one independent member of the House. This 2006 vote was similar to the vote in 2005, where 15 Republicans and 145 Democrats voted in support.

The vote is a major disappointment for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). According to the Drug Reform Coordinating Network (DRCnet) MPP had made this vote a major priority, putting together a Republican lobbying team of six. According to MPP, “staffers are working around the clock, making our final push on Capitol Hill. Our lobbying and grassroots teams are fully deployed.” Despite this major push by MPP and support for the measure from the entire drug policy reform community the results were effectively no different from 2005, when the measure gained 161 votes.

Supporters of the amendment argued on the floor of the House that the measure was about compassion for the suffering and respect for states’ rights. Opponents argued that marijuana was a highly addictive drug that has not been approved as medicine nor recognized by major medical associations. Opponents also argued that Marinol (synthetic THC) was a viable legal substitute.

Supporters of the amendment argued that it would not change federal law, but this was perhaps the weakest part of their argument. This amendment would effectively allow states to opt out of the federal Controlled Substances Act with respect to marijuana legislation. Indeed this is a major component of MPP’s strategy to de-federalize marijuana laws and turn the issue entirely over to the states.

Regardless of the fine points of the debate on the House floor, the core argument against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment is that it abandons a federal approach to marijuana policy, and this is not some minor matter that the House of Representatives will let slip by after twenty minutes of debate over an amendment to an appropriations bill. This is a major policy proposal that, to have any chance of approval by this House, needs to be addressed in a comprehensive fashion.

The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment is a futile remedy to an urgent problem, inadequate to address the overall problems of medical cannabis patients even if adopted by the House. It is a futile remedy for several reasons. First, it is the doctrine of the Republican Leadership in the House that no measure will be enacted unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans. Even if passed by the House and the Senate an amendment supported only by a small minority of Republicans has little chance of surviving conference negotiations on a final appropriations bill. Such an amendment would have little priority for negotiators appointed by the House leadership, for example.

Even if passed, perhaps by a Democratic controlled Congress sometime in the future, the amendment is a futile remedy for another reason. It does not address the needs of all medical cannabis patients throughout the entire country. In fact, this overall policy approach of leaving the medical issue up to individual states suggests that just as some states should be allowed to provide legal access to cannabis for medical use, others should be allowed to deny such access, as is the case now in most of the country. A states’ rights approach, frankly, is part of the problem not part of the solution.

Medical cannabis patients require legal, regulated access to cannabis throughout the nation – that’s a federal policy and that’s why medical cannabis reform is a national and not a state problem. States can do a lot to provide patients and caregivers protection from local prosecution, and state and local level reform must continue to expand these protections. But a new approach is necessary to address the needs of medical cannabis patients at the federal level.

Rescheduling cannabis, the objective of the Cannabis Rescheduling Petition now pending before the Food and Drug Administration, is one step in the right direction toward reforming federal marijuana policy. Another positive step would be working toward Congressional legislation to set up national research programs to provide access to medical cannabis as recommended by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1999.

It is a major accomplishment for the marijuana reform movement that 37% of the House of Representatives is willing to support a pro-medical marijuana proposal, even a modest one such as this. Reform groups, including Americans for Safe Access, Drug Policy Alliance, Drug Reform Coordinating Network, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Marijuana Policy Project, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy, worked long and hard to turn out public support for the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment.

During the House debate Lynn Woolsey (CA-06) referred to the many visits by medical cannabis patients to Congressional offices and their touching stories, imploring her colleagues that this is a chance to do the right thing for these suffering patients. These and other comments by supporters of the amendment indicate the success reform groups have had at getting members of Congress to understand the nature and importance of the medical cannabis issue.

As important as the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment has been as an educational tool for members of Congress and an organizational exercise for advocacy groups, it is just as important to note that after four years and widespread support from the reform community this strategy has failed to provide relief to the potential legal problems of medical cannabis patients, and provides no hope of achieving anything but symbolic relief to patients in both the short and long term.

The House of Representatives faces the voters this November. There is rampant speculation in political circles that the Democrats have a chance to win additional seats this fall and become the majority party. This could indeed change the prospects for medical cannabis legislation in the House in 2007. While this could increase the prospects for passage of Hinchey-Rohrabacher next year, it also could provide an opportunity to seek legislative solutions that do a better job of responding to the immediate needs of medical cannabis patients throughout the country.

In many ways the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment represents taking the path of least resistance; after all, amendments to appropriations bills are short cuts to policy change. It’s a convenient response, one that allows politicians and advocacy groups to tell their supporters they are fighting the good fight, but one that in the case of medical cannabis ultimately fails to address the issues at hand. Medical cannabis users require a new approach to changing national marijuana policy, an approach that addresses the needs of patients rather than the needs of politicians and fundraisers.