Pot reformers see change on the horizon after close 222-195 vote in House of Representatives

Steven Nelson, US News & World Report

A conservative congressman representing rural southwest Virginia has emerged as an unlikely champion of rolling back federal marijuana prohibition.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., quietly introduced a bill Monday that would end marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance, allow doctors to prescribe the drug – if their state authorizes them to do so – and permit patients to pick it up at their local pharmacy.

“This is a very reasonable, conservative-type approach,” Griffith tells U.S. News. “It’s conservative because we’re saying to the government, ‘You’re out of line here, step aside and let us treat people.’”

If the bill becomes law, Griffith believes the federal health insurance behemoths Medicare and Medicaid would cover pot prescriptions – after the Food and Drug Administration conducts studies confirming the drug’s medicinal value.

Griffith says private insurance companies would likely follow suit. 

“I think if it’s a prescribed drug, they’re going to pay for it,” he says.

The two-term Republican says he's optimistic about the bill’s chances after 195 House colleagues – including 22 Republicans – voted Wednesday to block the Veterans Health Administration from punishing doctors who recommend marijuana as medicine.

That proposal failed, but Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., was among the 22 Republicans who voted in favor. Upton chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which will hear Griffith’s bill.

Griffith joined 221 colleagues voting against the proposal, which was offered as an amendment by longtime marijuana policy reformer Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. 

“Here’s my problem: I believe people ought to follow the law … until you change it,” Griffith says. “Here’s the dilemma that that amendment would have created: A doctor at the VA is being encouraged to join in a conspiracy for the distribution of marijuana … [but] that doesn’t prevent the federal government from bringing criminal charges.”

He hopes the 195 members who backed Blumenauer’s amendment will co-sponsor his bill, and expects to attract other supporters as well.

“Let’s get it to where it’s legal as a Schedule II drug,” he says. “Then an amendment like that would make sense. First let's get it out of Schedule I, where there is no leeway legally.”

American doctors cannot currently prescribe marijuana and scientific research into its benefits is limited because it’s listed as a Schedule I substance in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, a classification that decrees it has no accepted medical value. 

Many states, beginning with California in 1996, have established medical marijuana programs that allow access to the drug via a doctor’s “recommendation” in lieu of a prescription.

More than three decades ago, in 1979, Virginia passed its own medical marijuana law, authorizing doctors to prescribe it for glaucoma and cancer patients. But the law didn’t take effect because prescribing doctors would be penalized for violating federal law.

“No doctor in his or her right mind would write a prescription for a Schedule I drug,” Griffith explains. “If you write a prescription for a Schedule I drug, you lose your [Drug Enforcement Administration] number, which allows you to do all the other prescriptions.”

“Virginia has been waiting patiently,” he says, for federal law to change.

Griffith notes some states with “Jerry-rigged” medical marijuana programs have seen shady conduct – such as money laundering allegations – at dispensaries and says his legislation would put the entire industry on a more respectable footing. 

Marijuana reform advocates sense momentum at the federal level. 

“Congress is now, more than ever, poised to finally bring federal policy in line with science and popular will,” says Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access. "Yesterday's vote on whether VA doctors can exercise their First Amendment rights to recommend marijuana for medical use may have failed to garner sufficient votes for passage, but Congress came closer to changing federal marijuana policy that it ever has before.”

Hermes says ASA, which railed for years against federal raids on state-authorized dispensaries, welcomes Griffith’s legislation, but prefers a bill offered Blumenauer and 23 co-sponsors that would list marijuana as a Schedule III substance or lower – which he says would allow less-restricted research.

Blumenauer tells U.S. News “there’s tremendous momentum” in favor of reforming marijuana laws, and he believes rescheduling is inevitable.

“People have been using it for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have [legalized medical marijuana] on the basis of compelling testimony, and there are now one million people in the United States who have been authorized by their doctor to have medical marijuana,” he says.

Blumenauer and 17 colleagues wrote to President Barack Obama in February asking him to order an administrative rescheduling of marijuana – a faster route than legislative action. There’s no sign Obama plans to do so, though the administration is side-stepping mandatory minimum drug sentences and tolerating recreational marijuana stores in Colorado and Washington.

The Portland Democrat is less optimistic than Griffith about the congressional outlook this session.

“The expectation that a Republican committee is going to move the rescheduling, I think, is remote,” he says. “But I’d love for them to have a hearing on it. I think a Schedule II listing – meaning it's as dangerous as cocaine and meth – likewise doesn’t reflect reality, but it would be a move in the right direction.”

A poll released in April by Pew found 77 percent of Americans believe marijuana has legitimate medical uses. More than 70 percent of voters in conservative-leaning Texas and Florida believe medical marijuana should be legal, according to recent polls.

“Let’s face it: A lot of people are self-medicating and are buying it from criminal elements,” Griffith says. “Nobody is going to tell you marijuana is worse than OxyContin, but we use that for medicine.”