Medical marijuana supporters lose bid in House for state control
Rohrabacher and others had argued doctors not federal government should have right to make decision.
By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- When the Supreme Court ruled last week that medical marijuana users could be federally prosecuted, it suggested that Californians and others who supported the drug's medicinal use "may one day be heard in the halls of Congress."

Well, they were heard Wednesday, but it didn't turn out any differently. By a vote of 264-161, the House rejected legislation that would have blocked the Justice Department from interfering with California and nine other states that have laws allowing marijuana to be used to treat diseases like AIDS, glaucoma and cancer.

It was the first test of Congress' mood on the issue since the court's 6-3 decision upholding broad federal authority over drug laws. The mood was about the same as the last time the House voted on such legislation, which was defeated 268-148 in 2004.

Proponents of allowing states to set their own policies on the issue -- including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, a co-sponsor of the legislation -- were disappointed but unbowed.

"Just the opportunity to get this issue out is a good thing," said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., the prime sponsor.

Angel Raich, one of two California women who took their fight against federal interference with the state law to the Supreme Court, had lobbied lawmakers to pass the legislation. It would have barred the Justice Department from using funds to prevent the implementation of medical marijuana laws in California, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont or Washington

The issue scrambled partisan lines, with some normally conservative Republicans, like Rohrabacher, advocating medical marijuana.

The debate was a replay of familiar arguments. Supporters of the legislation said it was a matter of compassion and state's rights. Opponents said tolerating use of medical marijuana risked unleashing reefer madness nationwide.

"They have a right to decide at the state level should a doctor be able to prescribe marijuana to someone who is suffering. This makes all the sense in the world," said Rohrabacher, who represents the Palos Verdes Peninsula and parts of the Harbor area of Los Angeles. "Let's not have a power grab by the federal government at the expense of these poor patients and the right of doctors to make these decisions, not the politicians."

But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said claims about the ability of marijuana to relieve pain, alleviate nausea and combat devastating weight loss were "designed to advance the social agenda of people who want to legalize marijuana."

"It is seeking to get the camel's nose under the tent," he said.

Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., said marijuana was a dangerous drug that "curtails the growth and development of the brain."

"Anything we do that encourages young people to use marijuana will have a devastating affect on their mental capacity," he said.

Rohrabacher and others noted doctors are allowed to prescribe many drugs that can be abused, including the painkiller oxycontin, which is highly addictive.

"Marijuana is probably a dangerous drug and I would not suggest we do anything to encourage its use," he said. "There are many drugs that have many serious side effects that are harmful to people if they're misused. Marijuana is no different than that."

Federal law classifies marijuana among heroin and other drugs that have "no currently accepted medical use." Peterson noted that the Food and Drug Administration has approved use of marinol, which contains a synthetic version of THC, marijuana's active ingredient. But critics say marinol is slow to work, is more impairing than marijuana and can't be kept down by patients suffering nausea. Raich, who has chronic wasting syndrome and numerous other illnesses, was prescribed marijuana after being unable to tolerate synthetic drugs.

Supporters of prescription pot had hoped that the landmark Supreme Court decision would help their cause in Congress.

They touted a poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project showing that 68 percent of respondents were against federal prosecution of medical marijuana users.