States still push for medical pot

June 15, 2005

Wendy Koch, USA Today

State lawmakers in several states are pushing ahead with medical-marijuana legislation, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling and the U.S. House of Representatives' rejection Wednesday of a bill that would protect medical-pot users from federal prosecution.

Lawmakers in at least seven states — Alabama, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Wisconsin — say they will continue efforts to pass laws allowing residents to use marijuana for medical reasons. Some say, however, that recent federal action may dampen their chances for success. Others are halting their plans.

"It makes it more difficult," says Alabama state Rep. Laura Hall, a Democrat who has proposed a bill allowing pot's medical use. She expects opponents will cite both the U.S. House vote and the Supreme Court ruling that allows federal prosecution of medical-pot use. Still, she's undeterred: "I will continue to sponsor the bill."

The U.S. House, by a 264-161 vote Wednesday, rejected an amendment that would have barred the Justice Department from prosecuting medical-marijuana users who are following state laws. Proponents, including 15 Republicans and 145 Democrats, picked up 13 votes from last year but still fell far short of the majority needed for passage.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., introduced a related measure late last year, but no action is pending in the Senate.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 last week that the federal government may prosecute sick people who use pot under a doctor's prescription to ease pain. The justices said a federal ban trumps state laws protecting such patients. It left the issue to the Justice Department, which has to decide how aggressively to pursue patients, and Congress.

Federal prosecutions make up a tiny share of marijuana charges nationally, so state laws have protected many users.

'Don't go after the sick and dying'

Ten states have medical-marijuana laws: California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Rogene Waite, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, says the court ruling won't change the DEA's enforcement. "We don't go after the sick and dying. We go after large-scale organizations, traffickers and distributors." Yet she adds: "People should not be breaking the law. There's always a possibility they could come under the radar."

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., a sponsor of the House measure, says the court's ruling and congressional inaction leave states in limbo. Congress, he says, "is frequently out of step and almost always behind public sentiment."

There was sentiment in several legislatures this year to push for the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes:

Rhode Island. The day after the Supreme Court ruling, the Senate passed a bill that has strong support in the House. The governor has threatened a veto, but an override may be possible.

New Mexico. A filibuster prevented final House action on a bill that passed the Senate and committees in both chambers by bipartisan majorities. The governor has indicated his support.

Alabama. A House panel passed a bill before adjournment. The Legislature reconvenes in January.

Minnesota. A Senate panel passed a bill in April, but it faces an uphill battle for final passage and a likely veto.

New Jersey. A bill is currently before the Senate Health Committee.

Connecticut. A Senate bill now goes to the House, which passed a similar one last year. Gov. Jodi Rell has not said whether she'll sign it.

Wisconsin. GOP state Rep. Gregg Underheim has introduced a bill. As chairman of the health committee, he expects hearings and a floor vote this year but says passage is "unlikely."

The U.S. House rejection may embolden opponents of a state law, says Minnesota state Sen. Steve Kelley, a Democrat: "The House's decision, more than the Supreme Court's, would cause some, particularly Republicans, to question whether we should act on it." However, he says, neither changes "the moral imperative of taking action." He says Minnesota has to make residents understand that a state law doesn't protect against federal prosecution.

New Mexico state Sen. Cisco McSorley, a Democrat who backs a state law, sees little impact from the federal decisions. "The folks who voted for it (state law) last time didn't really care what the federal government was doing."

Wisconsin's Underheim says that there is little political support for federal prosecution of sick people.

Effort in New York state stalls

In New York, however, the court ruling may mean the demise of a bipartisan effort that was just beginning. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a GOP supporter of a state law, no longer plans to bring it up for a floor vote.

"In light of the Supreme Court decision, it doesn't make sense to go ahead and pass a bill that's against the law," says Bruno's spokesman Mark Hansen.

"What we have at the state level is all this frustration that Congress isn't doing anything," says Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors medical-pot laws. "At some point, we can't have states doing one thing and the feds another."



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