Patients need patience

A decade after voters started approving medical marijuana, Congress still hasn’t gotten the message

This Mount Rushmore lineup of Democratic presidential candidates took place in Carson City in June. Every one of these candidates except Mike Gravel supports ending federal medical marijuana raids, and Gravel favors making marijuana legal.

This Mount Rushmore lineup of Democratic presidential candidates took place in Carson City in June. Every one of these candidates except Mike Gravel supports ending federal medical marijuana raids, and Gravel favors making marijuana legal.

Photo By Jean Dixon

Nevada voters may have voted for medical marijuana, but that doesn’t mean that law enforcement is willing to make it easy for them, nor are the politicians who set federal policy.

At this point, the greatest hope patients and their physicians have is next year’s presidential election, which could bring into office a candidate willing to stop law enforcement raids on health care use of marijuana. And for Nevadans, the best way to affect that decision is in the January presidential caucuses in which most candidates have pledged to stop the raids.

Nevada radio personality Travus Hipp of Silver City was arrested last month on pot charges although he has a California-issued medical marijuana card. A search of his home turned up 4 ounces of marijuana and 3 ounces of peyote.

On July 29, a vote was held in the U.S. House of Representatives on whether to tell federal agents and prosecutors to knock off harassment of patients in 12 states that have approved medical marijuana by cutting off money for such raids.

Nevada House members Shelley Berkley and Jon Porter voted for it. Dean Heller voted against it.

The measure failed, 165-262, nearly identical to a similar vote last year of 163-259.

It was the best showing the measure has received but still a long way from victory. Worse for proponents, it showed little growth in strength, even with the Democratic takeover of the House.

The amendment, designed to protect patients who use medical marijuana in accordance with state law from federal prosecution, was sponsored by Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California and Democrat Maurice Hinchey of New York.

None of the Nevada representatives spoke during the floor debate.

Internet campaign
The vote was the subject of a great deal of online organizing and campaigning, with groups like the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCN) and the Drug Policy Alliance getting their constituencies to pressure their House members to vote for the Hinchey amendment.

But it has failed to crack the barrier to being a national news story. Of the news services, only Reuters covered the story and newspaper coverage tended to be concentrated in the states that have made medical marijuana legal under state law.

In a prepared statement after the vote, Hinchey said, “It is unconscionable to me that the federal government would seek to not only deny, but arrest and prosecute, medical marijuana patients who are using the drug in accordance with state law to relieve pain and nausea associated with debilitating illnesses such as cancer, AIDS and multiple sclerosis. What we tried to do on the House floor tonight was protect those patients and their doctors from unfair and inhumane efforts by the federal government to deny them the medicine they need.”

DRCN posted a message on its website: “Don’t look to the Democratically-controlled Congress to protect you, patients!” Seventy-nine of the votes against the amendment were Democratic. An analysis by Jon Gettman of showed that members of the House from medical marijuana-supporting states voted heavily in favor of the Hinchey amendment.

Berkley, a Southern Nevada Democrat, released a statement that suggested her interest was not just in stopping interference with current patient usage but also removing obstacles to medical marijuana research.

“Congress needs to stop letting politics interfere with research on the medicinal value of medical marijuana,” she said. “FDA approval of marijuana could happen, but not until the DEA stops blocking the first step in that process.”

There was no response to requests for a statement from Heller of the reasons for his vote.

Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said, “It is a shame that the majority of our representatives in Congress could not agree to pass this compassionate Hinchey amendment that would have stopped the funding used by federal officers for making those destructive arrests. Nearly a quarter of the states in the union have legalized medical marijuana because the citizens of those states acknowledged by their personal votes that they realized medical marijuana can save lives and make people dying of terrible diseases more comfortable. The police, judges, prosecutors and corrections personnel of LEAP have spent their entire careers working to stop drug abuse. We know that to reduce death, disease, crime and addiction in our communities we must end this failed war on drugs because it is a self-perpetuating and constantly enlarging policy of disaster.”

During the day of the vote, the Drug Enforcement Administration staged raids of medical marijuana dispensaries all across Los Angeles County. The sweep came not only as the House was about to vote, but also as the Los Angeles City Council approved a measure calling on federal agents to stop harassing such groups. A DEA spokesperson called the timing “purely coincidental.”

In November 1996, Arizona and California voted to make marijuana legal for health reasons. In the years since, medical marijuana has become legal under state law in 12 states, mostly in the West—Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. (Voters in Arizona and Maryland, have also approved health uses for marijuana but they also have state laws banning possession.) The Hinchey amendment would apply only to those 12.

Caucus issue
With presidential caucuses and primaries scheduled to start in four months, every presidential candidate has been questioned about the issue on the campaign trail, and most of them have said they would de-emphasize the raids. In New Hampshire, the first primary state, Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana has tracked the statements of the candidates.

So far, Democrats Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson, and Republicans Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo have said they support ending the raids. John McCain has given conflicting statements on the issue.

Republicans Sam Brownback, Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Huckabee, Duncan Hunter and Mitt Romney have said they would continue the raids.

Democrat Mike Gravel has not expressed himself on the specific issue of the raids, but supports making marijuana legal.

There are additional bits of information in the candidates’ backgrounds that reflect on their stands. Barack Obama sponsored an amendment in the senate to stop the raids. Bill Richardson, as New Mexico governor, signed New Mexico’s medical marijuana measure into law and last month criticized the arrest of a wheelchair-bound Malaga, N.M., man who was certified by the state Health Department to possess and smoke marijuana for medical reasons. The arrest took place in a raid on the man’s home.

Joe Biden’s stance on the raids stands in sharp contrast with most of his record on drugs in Congress, where he has been one of the most aggressive supporters of prohibition and the war on drugs.