Despite momentum, pot bill fizzles

June 15, 2005

Josh Richman, Oakland Tribune

A legislative amendment on which many medical marijuana advocates hung their hopes went up in smoke Wednesday, gaining more votes than ever before but still falling 57 short of passage one week after a defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Advocates said having 161 House members vote to end federal arrests and prosecution of medical pot patients and providers in California and nine other states was a moral victory. An actual victory required 218 votes.

Angel McClary Raich of Oakland, a plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court last week, was in Washington, D.C.

, this week to lobby for the amendment. On Wednesday, she noted that Congress had voted to continue criminalizing her medicine on the same day her 19-year-old son left for basic training at the U.S. Army's Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

Though saddened by the final vote, Raich said she's 'pleased that the momentum is on our side. ... It shows that we have gained support; it also shows we have work to do still.'

'It's important for patients throughout the country not to panic or lose hope, because our battle is not over,'Raich said, urging constituents to call lawmakers who opposed the amendment.

Authored by Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, and supported by Reps. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz, and Ron Paul, R-Texas, the amendment would have barred the Justice Department from using public money to raid, arrest or prosecute patients and providers in states with medical marijuana laws.

The same amendment got 152 votes in 2003 and 148 in 2004. Advocates had hoped last week's Supreme Court ruling — that federal agents have the authority to go after these patients and providers — would rally more support this time around.

The only greater Bay Area members of Congress opposing the amendment — as they did in past years — were Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, and Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, spoke in the amendment's favor on the House floor, saying it's 'not a crime to be ill and to need to have access to pain relief. People who seek this therapy should be able to receive it. It is long past time for us to base our policies on science, not misguided politics.'

Rohrabacher could not be reached for comment later Wednesday. Hinchey issued a statement saying he is 'encouraged and satisfied' by the vote. 'I fully recognize that progress on Capitol Hill is often incremental and we'll continue to push for this amendment each year until it passes.'

Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Rob Kampia said his and other groups now will turn their attention to pushing medical marijuana bills in state legislatures — in New York and Rhode Island in the short term, and in several other states in early 2006. That way, advocates can return to Capitol Hill next year with more steam, he said.

'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.

Medical marijuana supporters also are backing a 'States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act' reintroduced in May by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.; it would move marijuana to a less-restricted status within the Controlled Substances Act and regulate its production, possession and use as medicine.

But Frank has carried this or similar bills in every session since 1995; last time, it died without a hearing in a House subcommittee. And it now has 36 co-sponsors, compared with 44 last session.

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