Senator Mikulski and the Road to Federal Protections for Medical Cannabis Patients

This Wayback Wednesday we are highlighting remarks made by Senator Barbara Mikulski kicking off ASA’s 2016 National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference. The previous year Senator Mikulski was awarded ASA’s Elected Official of the Year award along with Congressman Rorhabacher and Congressman Farr, for their heroic work in working towards passing the Medical Cannabis Amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Bill, which stopped the federal raids and prosecutions of patients and the businesses that served them and threats to state officials implementing medical cannabis laws.

In her remarks, she reminded Unity participants that the CJS amendment was just a temporary measure and that advocates would need to keep up the pressure on Congress if we want to see patients have the same rights as all Americans. Nine years later, her message still resonates and serves as a reminder that patient advocates have to continue to fight for our rights. 

Senator Mikulski’s impact on medical cannabis federal policy has changed millions of lives. While she was always a supporter of medical cannabis, the evolution of her becoming a champion is an important tale of patient advocacy, determination, and the power of working with policy makers to improve the lives of patients. 


Senator Mikulski and the Road to Federal Protections for Medical Cannabis Patients

In 2006 Americans for Safe Access opened our D.C. office to give patients daily representation on Capitol Hill and almost immediately found a legislative ally in Senator Barbara Mikulski, who ended up helping us in developing our national strategy and guiding us through the passage of the first federal medical cannabis protections.

At our very first meeting Senator Mikulski told us that in order for her to champion medical cannabis access she would need three things from us:

  1. Connecting medical cannabis to the labor movement to ensure rights for workers in this new market
  2. Connecting with the herbal medicine industry to benefit from their previous work in alternative medicine
  3. Passing a medical cannabis access program in the Senators state of Maryland

The federal campaign to undermine state medical cannabis programs started under the Clinton Administration when the first medical cannabis law was passed in 1996 and continued through the second term of the Obama Administration leaving millions of wasted tax dollars and thousands of shattered lives in its wake. 

When President Obama was elected, he promised an end to the dispensary raids and arrests harming patients across the country. However, we soon found that federal raids not only continued, but escalated with the U.S. Attorney’s office contacting State Attorneys General and telling them that their state cannabis programs were in violation of federal law. This marked the return of federal prosecutions and meant that we were going to need to increase our presence in Washington D.C.

In 2013, ASA launched the Peace for Patients campaign to keep these attacks in the public eye and to keep pressure on Congress to intervene. The What’s the Cost?: The Federal War on Patients report was released to highlight the impact of individuals and the families of jailed individuals caught in the crossfire of the state-federal conflict. 

Our first National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference occurred in the spring of 2013 and allowed us to bring medical cannabis patients and advocates from across the U.S. to D.C. to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill. Nothing can bring greater change than a constituent talking face-to-face with their elected representatives. 

In 2014, with the tireless efforts Congressman Rorhabacher and Congressman Farr and our members the House finally passed the Medical Cannabis Amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) Appropriations Bill (“CJS Amendment”), an effort that the Congressman started in 2003 with its first introduction. But now we needed to get the amendment through the Senate to make it law. 

By this point, ASA had completed two of Senator Mikulski’s requests: we had partnered with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) to help organize cannabis workers and we had collaborated with the American Herbal Products Association to create product safety standards for cannabis medicine and laid the groundwork for our PFC industry standards.

The last thing we needed to do was pass comprehensive medical cannabis legislation in Maryland. After a ten year campaign, in 2014 we passed Maryland HB 881 creating their medical cannabis program. The day after the passage of HB 881, Senator Mikulski’s office called us to find out what she could do to help at the federal level.

The timing was crucial. Senator Mikulski was now the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In this role, she kept her promise and shepherded the CJS Amendment through to the final Appropriations Bill, forbidding the Department of Justice from spending funds to prosecute medical cannabis patients or to undermine state medical cannabis programs. That amendment continues to protect state medical cannabis programs from federal interference, since medical cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. 

Senator Mikulski’s message is a reminder of the work we still need to do to create a new world where medical cannabis access is available to all Americans.

We need to keep the pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation, join us in the continued fight by taking action today! Take action now by sending a letter to your federal representatives asking them to support medical cannabis patients and legislation and to prioritize these issues moving forward.