House rejects medicinal pot measure

June 15, 2005

Edward Epstein , San Francisco Chronicle


Washington -- The House for the third straight year rejected legislation Wednesday that would have protected medicinal marijuana users from federal arrests in states that allow doctors to prescribe pot for their patients.

The 264-161 vote defeating the measure, which was anticipated, came after a debate over compassion and states' rights and warnings about the spread of dangerous drugs.

The issue had special urgency, arriving on the House floor a week after the U.S.

Supreme Court ruled that federal authorities could prosecute patients who use marijuana legally prescribed for them under state medicinal marijuana laws such as the one voters enacted in California in 1996. But the high court also said Congress could change the law if it wanted.

Advocates of the bipartisan amendment to the Justice Department's annual appropriations bill had their eye on the margin of defeat to see if they were picking up support in the wake of the court ruling. Last year, the pro- marijuana amendment lost 268-148. In 2003, the bill received 152 votes. There were 94 votes in 1998 against a resolution opposing medical marijuana.

The number of Republicans voting for the measure declined to 15 this year from 19 in 2004. But the number of Democrats rose from 128 to 145. Rep. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, also voted for it. All of California's 33 Democrats voted for the measure. Among the 20 Republicans, the only supporters were Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton (Orange County) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), a co-sponsor.

In past years, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Mary Bono, R- Palm Springs, had voted yes. This year they voted no.

Advocates expected 160 votes for their measure, which would have barred the Justice Department from spending money to prosecute pot patients in states where its use with a prescription is legal. '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, which wants marijuana legalized, taxed and regulated. Ten states, including California, have moved to legalize pot for medical uses.

'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,'' Kampia said. However, advocates remain almost 60 votes short of a majority in the House, and no legislation calling for protection of medicinal marijuana patients is pending in the Senate.

'People are beginning to get it,'' said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland. 'That's why our vote went up. It's an issue of basic humanity.''

Some advocates said the amendment offered by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Rohrabacher was about preserving states' rights in the face of overarching federal power.

'The regulation of medicine has been, is and will be a state issue. The notion that the federal government should step in and override doctors in one specific area of their practice of medicine can only be attributed to ideology, '' Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said before the debate.

Rohrabacher said he thinks marijuana is a dangerous drug. But he said if the voters of California want to approve its use for people with serious medical conditions Congress should get out of their way.

'Our founding fathers believed that criminal issues like this should be handled at the state level. We should decide that states have this right,'' he said.

But opponent Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said the states shouldn't be allowed to overrule federal laws, which classify marijuana as a dangerous drug. 'Can states nullify a federal law? We fought a war over that issue,'' said Souder, referring to the pre-Civil War south's position that states could negate federal tariffs or laws curbing slavery.

'It's a silly argument that physicians should make up Food and Drug Administration law. ... That's why we have an FDA,'' said Souder, a leading opponent of legalizing any use of marijuana.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, said the argument was about compassion for those whose pain could be relieved by marijuana.

'My mother had glaucoma, and marijuana relieved her significantly. Her favorite Christmas present was a tin of marijuana,'' Woolsey said of her mother, who died in 1978.

But Souder said proponents really had another agenda. 'This has little to do with compassion. It's hiding behind a few ill people to try to legalize marijuana,'' said Souder, adding that the amendment's passage would enable 'shysters and quacks'' to prescribe pot.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., said passage would send a dangerous message. 'Anything we do that encourages young people to use marijuana will have a developmental impact on their brains,'' he warned, saying that more than half of the teenagers in treatment for substance abuse are being treated for pot use.

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