by Alexander Zaitchik, AlterNet
June 3, 2008
You have to hand it to the Republican National Committee: Those guys
really know how to pick the wrong fight.
John McCain, already running against the public opinion grain in
support of the Iraq War and Bush tax cuts, received no help from
headquarters last month when the RNC made medical marijuana a
campaign issue. After Barack Obama told an Oregon weekly that he
would end federal raids on medical marijuana users and providers in
states with compassionate use laws, the RNC pounced. Obama's
position, said an RNC statement, "reveals that (he) doesn't have the
experience necessary to do the job of President (and) lacks the
judgment to carry out the most basic functions of the Executive
Branch." Because the Supreme Court has ruled that federal drug laws
trump state drug laws, the RNC reasons that halting federal raids
would be tantamount to ignoring the law.
They're right. But the RNC might want to get some new pollsters. What
they and their candidates don't seem to realize is that a steadily
shrinking minority of Americans oppose the controlled medicinal use
of cannabis -- around 20 percent, according to the last Gallup poll.
It's a safe bet that an even smaller number considers paramilitary
raids on the homes of peaceful cancer patients to be among the "basic
function of the Executive Branch." During the New Hampshire primary,
every Democratic candidate recognized this political reality by
promising to end federal harassment of state-approved medical
marijuana facilities and users. Republican candidates Tom Tancredo
and Ron Paul pledged the same.
And John McCain? When pressed by activists from the group Granite
Staters for Medical Marijuana, the Arizona senator responded in
lockstep with most of his GOP peers, sounding less like a maverick
than a Reagan-era after-school special. "I do not support the use of
marijuana for medical purposes," McCain said. "I believe that
marijuana is a gateway drug. That is my view, and that's the view of
the federal drug czar and other experts."
Given current trend lines, it may not be long before it's possible to
count McCain's "other experts" on two hands. In February, the
125,000-member American College of Physicians, the second-largest
physicians group in the country, published a position paper endorsing
the merits of medical marijuana and recommending the end of
marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug. "The ACP endorsement
is massive," says Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, a
Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group. "It blows to splinters the
assertion that the medical community doesn't support medicinal
As goes the ACP, so may go the American Medical Association, an
endorsement from which would leave the anti-medical marijuana
position of the Food and Drug Administration very lonely indeed.
To its credit, the country has not waited for the medical
establishment before moving forward on marijuana policy reform. Over
the last decade, support for compassionate use laws and broader
decriminalization efforts has been growing, if not at weed's pace,
then fast enough for one veteran marijuana reform lobbyist to now
speak of being "within striking distance of a national tipping point."
Since California passed Proposition 215 legalizing medical marijuana
in 1996, an average of one state per year has followed suit, some
through ballot initiatives, others through legislation. Even in
states that have yet to enact reform, a flurry of bills has been
introduced. This activity hasn't been limited to usual-suspect states
like Oregon and Vermont. Recent years have seen medical marijuana
laws introduced in Ohio, Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee. In
staunchly conservative South Carolina, it was a Republican state
senator, whose wife lost a battle with brain cancer, who introduced
his state's medical marijuana bill. In Texas, the state government
last year passed a bill that is a halfway house for
decriminalization, allowing police to issue citations instead of
arresting adults who possess less than 4 ounces of marijuana.
The next big test on the horizon is the Midwestern swing state of
Michigan, where voters in November will decide on a medical marijuana
law, the first such statewide ballot initiative since South Dakotans
narrowly rejected theirs in 2006. If passed, Michigan will be the
only state with its geographical and electoral profile to pass a
medical marijuana law. According to the Inside Michigan Politics
newsletter, polls show two-thirds voter support. "Michigan looks set
to become the 13th medical marijuana state this November," says Rob
Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
The other big initiative in November will appear on ballots in
Massachusetts. If passed, the maximum penalty for possession of up to
an ounce of marijuana in the Bay State would drop from up to six
months in jail and a $500 fine to a $100 civil fine.
There is also still a chance that the New York state legislature will
take up medical marijuana this session, a move that would enjoy
overwhelming in-state support. Post-Giuliani New York City is the
marijuana arrest capital of the world, with nearly 40,000 arrests in
2007 alone. The situation has gotten so out of hand that the New York
Times recently urged Gov. David Paterson to take the lead in drug
policy reform. Few governors are better positioned to do this than
Paterson, who is not only on good terms with state Republican
leaders, but has the moral authority that comes from suffering from
glaucoma, a painful condition known to be alleviated by marijuana.
Before becoming governor, Paterson was a leading activist for drug
policy reform and was once arrested protesting the draconian and
racially biased Rockefeller Drug Laws, which turn a brittle 35 this
year. (Incidentally, the Drug Enforcement Agency is celebrating the
same birthday in 2008, its website proudly declaring "35 Years of
But whatever happens inside Michigan, Massachusetts and New York, the
2005 Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Raich still leaves
marijuana users open to federal prosecution under the Controlled
Substances Act. As highlighted by the RNC statement critical of
Obama's pledge, this decision will continue to undermine state- and
local-level reforms until Congress changes federal law. Although only
1 percent of marijuana cases are prosecuted at the federal level, DEA
raids on patients, caregivers and providers have been on the rise in
states that have passed medical marijuana laws. This is especially
true of California and Oregon, where in many cases individual
patients have been detained and terrorized. In Los Angeles, the DEA
has begun threatening the owners of buildings used for medical
marijuana activities with seizure of their property, a development
the Los Angeles Times has called "a deplorable new bullying tactic."
According to Mirken, "The DEA has become the single largest obstacle
to effective regulation of (medical marijuana) establishments."
At the moment there are three bills in Congress that seek to put a
stop to these raids and set a precedent for federal-level reform.
The young granddaddy of this legislation is the bipartisan
Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, which has been introduced every year
since 2003. Essentially, the amendment would strip the Department of
Justice of funds to prosecute medical marijuana cases in states that
have medical marijuana laws on the books. Named after Rep. Maurice
Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the legislation
wouldn't legalize marijuana at the federal level or prevent the feds
from prosecuting medical marijuana use in states without medical
marijuana laws. It would simply enforce respect for state marijuana
laws. When first introduced in 2003, Hinchey-Rohrabacher received 152
votes. Last year, that number had risen to 165. Later this summer,
Congress will tackle the amendment again when it votes on the
Department of Justice Appropriations bill. Reform advocates hope the
amendment will benefit from racking up endorsements from groups like
the right-leaning Citizens Against Government Waste, which came out
in favor of Hinchey-Rohrabacher as a way for Congress to "start
sending a signal that its priorities are in order."
But every year so far has been a 10-yard fight, and its sponsors
don't expect that to change this year. "This will continue to be a
tough battle," says Jeff Lieberson, Hinchey's spokesperson. "Many
politicians are still behind the voters on this issue." Other
analysts also warn against high expectations, pointing out that the
timing is especially unfavorable for drug policy reform at the
"The movement on this issue in 2008 is going to be almost nonexistent
because politicians are focused on the election," says Alex Coolman,
a former attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance and author of the
Drug Law Blog. "Nobody in Washington wants to do anything that could
be perceived as controversial."
In April, Hinchey-Rohrabacher was joined by two other marijuana
policy reform bills, both co-sponsored by Barney Frank, D-Mass., and
Ron Paul, R-Texas. HR5842, the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection
Act, would deny the federal government the right to employ the
Controlled Substances Act to intervene in states that have legalized
medical marijuana; it would also remove marijuana from the list of
Schedule 1 drugs. HR5843, meanwhile, known as the Personal Use of
Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act, would effectively decriminalize
possession of up to 1 ounce. "We're in the early stages here," says
Frank spokesperson Peter Kovar. "Nothing like this ever comes quick."
But it may be coming more quickly than some people expect. "All the
indicators are prompting in the right direction," says Kampia. "Every
major new ballot initiative looks set to pass. Infrastructure is
growing: email lists, organizations, allies -- it's across the board.
Public opinion is moving steadily in favor of decriminalization.
State laws are moving forward, and none are going backward. We're
constantly picking up votes in the House. The 110th is the most
supportive Congress we've ever had."
If the RNC keeps attacking Democrats on medical marijuana, the 111th
will be that much better.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.
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