Congress to Vote on Medical Marijuana This Week (Wednesday or Thursday)

Press Release July 5, 2004
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 646-335-5384 or Bill Piper at 202-669-6430

For a second year in a row, Congress will step into the growing conflict between states and the federal government over the issue of medical marijuana. The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on an amendment this week that would prohibit the federal government from undermining state efforts to allow patients to use marijuana for medical reasons. 36 states have passed favorable medical marijuana legislation and nine of them have made it legal for patients to use marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. The use of marijuana for any reason, however, remains a federal crime and the U.S. Justice Department has been accused of spending too much time and money arresting medical marijuana patients.

“Attorney General John Ashcroft is not just trampling on medical privacy, he is jeopardizing public safety,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The law enforcement resources he wastes arresting cancer, AIDS, and MS patients would be better used fighting terrorism and violent crime.”

Although federal marijuana laws do not make an exception for medical use, the medical benefits of marijuana are well established. A 1999 Institute of Medicine study funded by the federal government found that nausea, appetite loss, pain and anxiety “all can be mitigated by marijuana.” The esteemed medical journal, The Lancet Neurology, reports that marijuana’s active components “inhibit pain in virtually every experimental pain paradigm.” Organizations that support allowing patients to use marijuana for medical reasons include the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Bar Association, American Nurses Association, and the American Public Health Association.

Many religious denominations also support medical marijuana or state discretion on the issue, including the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, National Council of Churches, National Progressive Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church, Union for Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Methodist Church. No religious denomination has come out in opposition to the medical use of marijuana.

Although eleven states have passed medical marijuana laws in recent years and polls show that voters overwhelmingly support the issue, the Drug Enforcement Administration (a division of the U.S. Justice Department) has made a series of high profile and controversial raids on medical marijuana patients in the last couple of years. These raids, which have occurred in states where voters have approved the use of medical marijuana, have angered local officials.

Responding to increased tension between state and federal officials, Rep. Hinchey (D-NY) and Rep. Rohrabacher (R-CA) offered an amendment to a federal spending bill last year that would have prohibited the Justice Department from spending any money undermining state medical marijuana laws. 152 members of Congress voted for it (70% of Democrats and 15 Republicans). While not enough votes to win, it was more than anyone expected. The two Congressmen plan to offer the amendment again this week as an amendment to the Commerce-Justice-State federal spending bill.

If enacted, the so-called Hinchey/Rohrabacher amendment would not prevent the DEA from arresting people using, growing, or selling marijuana for recreational use. Nor would it prevent the DEA from arresting patients for medical marijuana in states that have not approved it. It would simply prevent the federal government from arresting cancer, AIDS and MS patients who use marijuana for medical reasons in states that allow such use.

Groups supporting the right of patients to use medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation say they will make the vote a campaign issue. National polls show that over 70% of voters support medical marijuana, including substantial majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Voters have approved it at the ballot box every chance they have been given. Some polls show that as many as two-thirds of voters say they prefer candidates that support medical marijuana over those that do not.

The Drug Policy Alliance has already placed full-page newspaper ads in districts of some members of Congress who voted against medical marijuana last year. The ads accuse them of voting to send cancer, AIDS, and MS patients to federal prison. The group says this is only the beginning.

“If a Member of Congress votes to send cancer, AIDS, and MS patients to jail we’re going to make sure that voters in his or her district know that by November,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “This is a life and death issue and voters understand that.”

Regardless of what Congress decides on this issue, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon weigh in on the matter when it hears an appeal of a lower court ruling blocking the Justice Department from arresting medical marijuana patients in certain states. In that ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it is unconstitutional for the Justice Department to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana users if the drug isn’t sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes. Attorney General John Ashcroft appealed the case, Raich v. Ashcroft, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue later this year.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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