House Votes to End Medical Marijuana Prosecutions

Dan Brekke, KQED Radio

Medical marijuana advocates are celebrating what is a surprising bipartisan result in the highly polarized House of Representatives: Early Friday morning, 49 Republicans and 170 Democrats joined forces to pass a measure that would stop federal interference with state medical marijuana laws.

The 219-189 vote came as the House completed work on an appropriations bill for the Justice and Commerce departments and several other agencies. Among more than two dozen amendments was one introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Rohrabacher and 11 co-sponsors, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Monterey), argued that public opinion has shifted strongly to support for medical marijuana and against the federal government’s prohibition of pot.

Lee, who’s been critical of Justice Department prosecutions of medical cannabis providers in Oakland and Berkeley, said before the vote that it’s time to stop “unwarranted persecution” of medical marijuana.

“We should allow for the implementation of the will of the voters to comply with state law rather than undermining our democracy,” Lee said before the vote. “In states with medical marijuana laws, patients face uncertainty regarding their treatment, as small business owners who have invested millions, creating jobs and revenue, have no assurances for the future.”

Opponents countered that medical cannabis advocates are merely trying to open the way for full legalization of marijuana.

During debate on the amendment, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Maryland) read from a Drug Enforcement Administration report that called medical cannabis a mere “means to an end, which is the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. They did not deal with the problem of ensuring that the product meets the standards of modern medicine — quality, safety and efficacy.”

Rohrabacher’s amendment must pass the Senate and be signed by President Obama before it becomes law. Still, Friday’s 219-189 House vote marks a sharp reversal on the issue. Six times before, the House had rejected virtually identical versions of the amendment, originally introduced in 2003 by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York. The last time the proposal came to a vote, in May 2012, it was defeated by a vote of 262-163.

Medical pot advocates celebrated the amendment’s passage Friday.

“This vote is a huge victory for patients,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, in a statement. “This is a game-changer that paves the way for much more policy change to come.”

In a National Review op-ed published Thursday, Rohrabacher strikes a tone that suggests he’d like to go further than the amendment on medical marijuana. He argues that the price of continuing the war on marijuana has become too high and is especially wrongheaded in states, like California, where voters have chosen to legalize cannabis. And like other supporters of Friday’s amendment, he says support for the amendment is a matter of staying true to conservative values. Summing up the cost of the war on marijuana, he writes:

The explosion of gun violence across our urban landscape, now spreading to suburbs and the countryside; our unconscionable incarceration rates; the out-of-control and unconstitutional seizure of private property on drug enforcers’ whims; the corruption and militarization of our police; the chronic despair forced on minority Americans; a monumentally dysfunctional and alienating policy toward our Latin American neighbors; and even, yes, the subtle, psychological robbery of the self-worth and self-responsibility necessary to addressing drug-related problems realistically.

This is not a proper vision of government’s role, as the late William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman, among many others, taught my generation. We constitutionalists respected the Tenth Amendment’s preference for state laws, and we trusted the moral autonomy of the individual.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the appropriations bill during the summer.

KQED’s Michael Montgomery addressed some of the issues the legislation might raise in California, particularly in light of enforcement actions here three years ago.

“It raises question about groups like Harborside in Oakland that are under a civil enforcement action,” Montgomery said. “Will they be able to target them in this way if they’re not grossly out of line with state laws? It also raises the issue – California can avoid some of these enforcement actions if it gets its act together in terms of regulations like Colorado. I think this amendment in Washington should probably compel lawmakers in Sacramento to passing some kind of a law that would set up a statewide regulatory system.”