Medicinal Marijuana Backers Try, Try Again In House Vote
June 07, 2005
Edward Epstein, San Francisco ChronicleAdvocates of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes face a daunting task in Congress -- which probably will vote again on the issue next week -- but gain a little more hope year by year.
A bill advocating medicinal marijuana received 94 votes in the House in 1998. In 2003, legislation to block the Justice Department from using federal funds to crack down on the use of medicinal marijuana got 152 votes. Last year that total edged down to 148. This year advocates say they can count on 160 solid votes in the House when the same bill comes up for a vote, probably next Tuesday or Wednesday.
'It's our objective to get a few more votes this year,' said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., co-sponsor with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), of the legislation that blocks federal enforcement against medicinal marijuana patients in states that allow its use. 'There's a good chance we will get more support.'
Setback in California
The vote will come on the heels of Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dealt a setback to the 10 states, including California, that have decided to allow patients to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. The court's majority opinion, authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, said any changes in the federal law will have to come from Congress.
'I was disappointed in the decision. It was wrong,' Hinchey said. 'But I was glad to see that wording about Congress in his decision. The Congress has to deal with this issue.'
Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, said his group counts 160 votes this year for the Hinchey- Rohrabacher proposal, which will be offered as an amendment to the annual appropriations bill that covers the Justice Department. He said the court ruling means 'the light is shining brightly on Congress' and will increase pressure on potential swing votes in the House.
Angel Raich of Oakland, the lead plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court, plans to fly to Washington to lobby before the vote.
Kampia wouldn't predict victory in the 434-member House, where a vacancy has reduced its normal membership by one. 'We'll have an all-time record vote, ' he said.
But a majority remains far off. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., chairman of House drug policy subcommittee, hailed the Supreme Court decision. 'We cannot allow the state initiative process to undermine' national health and safety standards 'on the basis of political -- not scientific -- arguments,' Souder said in a statement.
He has said that if medicinal pot advocates want to change the federal law that makes marijuana an illegal drug, they should get Congress and the president to make such a change. He'll help lead the opposition to Rohrabacher and Hinchey next week.
Joyce Nalepka, founder and president of Drug Free Kids: America's Challenge, and a firm opponent of any step toward legalizing pot, said, 'I'm just appalled that any members of Congress would vote to legalize marijuana.
'What amazes me is that there are so many people who can get elected to federal office and be so ill-informed. There is absolutely no medical evidence that marijuana has any medical effectiveness,' Nalepka added. Medicinal marijuana advocates challenge that contention.
Other legislation on medicinal marijuana has also been introduced. In 2003, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, offered the Truth in Trials Act that would have allowed anyone charged with a marijuana offense to use the defense that they were acting in compliance with state medicinal marijuana laws.
Echoes of S.F. case
That proposal, which Farr plans to reintroduce, carried echoes of a San Francisco case in which U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that a jury in a federal criminal trial could not consider whether the defendant had grown pot for medical purposes in compliance with California's Proposition 215.
Farr and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., have also introduced the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act that would protect doctors, druggists and patients from federal prosecution. So far, they have 36 co-sponsors.
Neither bill has been, or is likely to be, scheduled for a committee hearing. No bills about medicinal pot are pending in the Senate.
In last year's vote on Rohrabacher-Hinchey, 18 Republicans joined Rohrabacher on the losing side for his amendment. It's unclear how many more members of the House majority will vote for the proposal, although advocates say the Supreme Court's reasoning against states' rights and for a strong federal role in regulating commerce could appeal to conservatives considering a vote for the measure.
'It's important to keep this issue out on the table,' Hinchey said.