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Can Congress Get a Clue? (Medical Marijuana and States’ Rights)

Can Congress Get a Clue? (Medical Marijuana and States’ Rights)
Drug war issues are regularly debated in that most ignorant and corrupt of entities: the United States Congress. This is the body that supposedly represents the American people, yet has consistently been lagging behind the states, science, reason, and popular opinion when it comes to the war on drugs.
In three recent instances, some cracks have appeared in Congress’ usually monolithic stance.
One of the most significant was last week’s Hinchey amendment to the House Commerce, Justice, State, and the Judiciary Appropriations bill:

(H.AMDT.297 to H.R.2799) An amendment to prohibit use of funds in the bill to prevent the States of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, or Washington from implementing State laws authorizing the use of medical marijuana in those States.

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In plain English, ten states have passed laws allowing regulated use of marijuana for medical purposes. The Federal Government (i.e., the DEA and ONDCP) has not only refused to accept the states’ right to do so, but it has targeted those states with federal raids on medical marijuana caregivers, often with dozens of armed agents descending on terminally ill and bed-ridden patients. This amendment would have prevented the Federal Government from interfering with the implementation of medical marijuana laws in those specific ten states.
The amendment failed 152-273. In a reasonable world, this should be a shocking loss, but in our House of Representatives, the fact that 15 republicans, 136 democrats, and 1 independent voted in favor is a major victory. This is the largest number ever to vote in favor of a medical marijuana issue. (See the list of how representatives voted and tell yours how you feel.)
A look at some of the debates on the floor gives a notion of how the drug war cheerleaders’ arguments are constructed.
Michael Burgess of Texas was one of those who spoke against the amendment:

“I actually had not planned on speaking on this issue this evening, but after sitting in my office and hearing some of the other arguments, I felt compelled to come over and at least, if I could, perhaps provide some illumination on this subject.”

In an attempt to claim that there is no medical need for marijuana, he then proceeded to include in the record the package insert from Marinol, a high-priced cannabinoid based drug that was speedily approved by the government (with the encouragement of the pharmaceutical industry) for use in easing many of the same symptoms that marijuana helps. He just conveniently failed to mention that Marinol is generally less effective, has worse side effects, greater dosage control issues, and is more expensive than marijuana. (See Lester Grinspoon’s Cannabis Health article (pdf).
The thing I found particularly interesting in this exchange is how Burgess came to the floor on impulse, and just happened to have a package of subscription Marinol. Now it’s true that Burgess is a doctor, so you might think this is no big deal. But he delivers babies. What’s a Texas obstetrician doing with a package of Marinol in his office in Washington, DC unless it was provided to him for just this purpose?
Who would provide it? Most likely the pharmaceutical industry lobby, which has vested interest in preventing an effective drug that can be grown in your back yard, cannot be patented, and thereby cuts into “legal” drug profits.
John Mica of Florida presented some of the most surreal arguments against the amendment. It’s bad enough that he’s a congressman and ignorant, but he was also formerly the chair of the committee which oversees drug policy in the House (Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources).
At one point in his opposition to the amendment, he brought up a figure of 19,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States. Considering there has never been a recorded instance of a drug overdose death from Marijuana (the necessary dose is impossible to consume), it’s hard to figure how that number has any relevance to a discussion of states’ rights to regulate medical marijuana. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1998 there were 16,926 total licit and illicit drug induced deaths (might be up to 19,000 by now). This includes “not only deaths from dependent and nondependent use of drugs (legal and illegal use), but also poisoning from medically prescribed and other drugs.” And none of these was from marijuana.
Mica continued bizarrely:

“We also heard here that the medical use of marijuana will relieve pain. Well, I can say also from chairing that subcommittee that that is not the case. In fact, anything that we do to encourage use, whether for this purpose or other purposes, will not relieve pain, it will cause pain. Certainly, I am sure if someone smoked enough marijuana or took enough crack or enough heroin or methamphetamines, they would not have any pain.”

Note: The 1999 subcommittee hearing referenced was a pro-drug war circus used to attack drug reformers. NORML was excluded from the hearings, and Rep. Bob Barr actually asked whether anti-racketeering laws could be used to prosecute people conspiring to legalize drugs. (see NY Times article)
Mark Souder of Indiana (also author of the Drug Free Student Aid Provision, which mandates that students convicted of any drug-related offenses (without regard to the nature of the offense or the offender) be denied eligibility for financial aid for periods ranging from one year to “indefinite”), decided to weigh in to counter the argument that states should be allowed to implement their own laws.

“This is about when Congress passed a law under the Constitution that said in interstate commerce, which narcotics move across interstate commerce, which was not a liberal interpretation of that clause but a strict interpretation of that clause from a conservative perspective, all except the more anarcho-libertarians, as we used to call them, believe that in drug laws the Federal Government historically has had the right to enforce a Federal law.”

Set aside

  1. the convoluted sentence structure, or
  2. the fact that he actually thinks that when the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana grows their own marijuana under state and local regulations and authority and distributes it to terminally ill patients without cost, that it constitutes “narcotics [moving] across interstate commerce.”

You still have the remarkable fact that Souder seems to be repudiating the entire conservative history of supporting states’ rights, and consigning it to the “libertarian fringe” (as he also referred to them). I wonder if he includes the Republican Party in this fringe, which adopted the following platform in 2000:

We must acknowledge that the federal government’s role should be to set expectations in policies, then get out of the way and let the states implement and operate those policies as they best know how. Washington must respect that one size does not fit all states and must not overburden states with red tape attached to its policies.

Or perhaps the President is a reformed anarcho-libertarian. Asked about medical marijuana as he campaigned for president in 1999, George W. Bush said he believes “each state can choose that decision as they so choose” (sic)
Several speakers parroted the standard ONDCP lies and exaggerations, using almost the exact same wording that Walters and his staff use, including the repetitious claim that there is no evidence of marijuana having medical value – the “if you say it often enough, maybe people will believe it” approach. The evidence, however, is voluminous. For an excellent overview, check out “Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the Scientific Evidence” by John P. Morgan and Lynn Zimmer (pdf).
Of course, not all the speakers in this debate showed such a lack of knowledge and reason. Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Sam Farr (D-CA), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Ron Paul (R-TX) and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) gave some excellent arguments in favor of the amendment. Kudos also to the 152 members who fought the pressure from the Bush Administration, the Republican leadership, and the lobbies to attempt to bring some reason to the states’ ability to follow their own laws regarding regulated medical use of marijuana.
The full debate is available as a pdf file.
Coming soon: Can Congress Get a Clue? (Plan Columbia) and Can Congress Get a Clue? (the Karen P. Tandy hearings)

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