In a historic move, the Republican-led House of Representatives Thursday night passed a medical marijuana amendment to legislation that funds the Justice Department and the DEA. The amendment — which received 219 votes but could have achieved perhaps ten additional votes if certain members had not been absent — limits the DEA’s ability to interfere in states that have adopted medical marijuana laws. The vote astonished observers, leaving many asking the question: How did this happen?
We fell far short of this winning number on the six occasions the amendment was advanced over the last 11 years. In 2003, the first time it was offered, the amendment garnered 152 votes. In 2012, that number had grown a mere 11 votes to 163. I worked on every one of the now seven votes that occurred on the amendment from 2003 through yesterday. From my front-row seat to history in the making, I can assure you that the political and social dynamics around this amendment — and marijuana legalization generally — have changed so significantly that it boggles the mind.
So what has changed? Quite simply, we are near the peak of the marijuana tipping point. Americans in 31 states and the District of Columbia now live under medical marijuana laws. That number will increase to 32 within a matter of days as Florida’s governor is expected to sign a new medical marijuana bill into law. That means the number of Americans who live in medical marijuana states has doubled to 60 percent, as compared with 29 percent in 2012 when the last vote occurred.
Even as public support for marijuana law reform grew enormously in the past decade, along with accompanying interest on the part of the media, politicians have lagged far behind. Leading up to a vote on the same amendment in 2006, I recall several members of Congress turning on their heels to run away when I approached them about the vote. That embarrassment, along with the disappointing outcome of the vote that year, was chronicled in a Showtime documentary that focused on my lobbying efforts and the plight of several medical marijuana patients. When the film was released, I received letters from people all over the country. How could the politicians be so out of touch, they all wanted to know.
It turns out that lawmakers needed to be moved by compelling true stories of patients, which essentially did not exist at the time.
The adoption of marijuana legalization laws in November 2012 by voters in two states was undoubtedly a watershed moment. But when Colorado’s regulatory experiment in adult-use sales of marijuana premiered in January 2013 over a year after the law passed, many major news outlets stumbled upon stories related to an unintended consequence of the adult-use marijuana law: the burgeoning communities of medical marijuana refugees who uprooted their families to move to Colorado due to availability of the only medicine that would work for them or their loved ones — medicine that would get them arrested in their home states.
These marijuana refugees weren’t your typical patients. They were children with severe epilepsy related disorders who benefited from the non-psychoactive Charlotte’s Web cannabis oil.