Medical marijuana backers say they'll fight on

July 25, 2007

Will Dunham, Reuters

Backers of a measure to stop the U.S. government from blocking the use of medical marijuana in states that allow it vowed on Thursday to press on with their fight despite losing another congressional vote.

The U.S. House of Representatives late on Wednesday defeated a measure that would have blocked the federal law on a vote of 262-165. It attracted the most votes it has ever gotten, but for the fifth straight year fell far short of passage.

The measure, sponsored by New York Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey and California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, was offered as an amendment to the spending bill that funds the Justice Department.

It would bar the department from spending money to prosecute people who use, prescribe, distribute or cultivate marijuana for medical purposes in states that permit it.

"We will continue to press on with it," Hinchey said in a telephone interview, saying he plans to try again in 2008. "There is a growing amount of support all across the country."

Hinchey said he was disappointed at the margin of defeat, saying he thought it might attract 180 "yes" votes in the new Democratic-controlled House after getting 163 votes in 2006.

He said, "I understand that there are a lot of people (lawmakers) who, even though they understand that what we're doing is the right thing, also understand how an issue like this can be politically manipulated by the opposition in an election."

Hinchey noted that 12 states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington -- have laws that allow use of marijuana for medical purposes like relieving the pain and nausea associated with cancer, AIDS and other illnesses.

But, Hinchey said, the federal government has undermined those state laws, for example, by having Drug Enforcement Administration agents raid medical marijuana providers.

Tom Riley, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said state laws do not supersede federal laws criminalizing marijuana. Riley called the vote "a really tough day" for backers of the medical marijuana legislation.

"You can fool some of the people some of the time. And this medical marijuana has been one of those (issues) for the last few years," Riley said.

"But I think that the hand is starting to get played out here," Riley added. "More and more people are realizing there is a con going on -- that a lot of the people who are behind this aren't really interested in sick people who need medicine, they're interested in marijuana legalization and they're playing on the suffering of genuinely sick people to get it."

Officials with the Marijuana Policy Project, which backs medical marijuana use, said evidence is mounting demonstrating its medical benefits.

"I have no doubt that 50 years from now we will look back on laws that put people in jail for using marijuana to relieve pain or nausea as every bit as barbaric as the laws that used to call for the burning of witches," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the group.

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