Medical marijuana efforts soldier on without Congress’ help

Paul Armentano Deputy Director, NORML
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On Thursday, August 1, Illinois Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation into law authorizing patients with a qualifying illness to legally possess and procure medical marijuana. Illinois joins 19 other states and the District of Columbia in its acknowledgement that marijuana is safe and efficacious as a therapeutic agent.

Moreover, once the Illinois law is fully implemented it will be among the dozen states that explicitly license (or are in the act of licensing) the production and dispensing of medical marijuana – activity that is in open defiance of federal law that classifies marijuana as a Schedule I prohibited substance lacking any accepted therapeutic value. (Two states, Colorado and Washington, are also in the process of licensing the commercial production and retail sale of cannabis for non-medical purposes.) Closer to Capitol Hill, regulators for the District of Columbia have begun allowing locally licensed dispensaries to engage in retail medical marijuana sales to authorized DC residents. Yet, inexplicably, most members of Congress continue to remain silent on this issue – even as medical cannabis is openly grown and distributed within blocks of the halls of Congress!

How much longer can the majority of Congress and the Obama administration maintain this ‘See no evil, hear no evil’ approach to the new political and regulatory reality taking place both inside and outside the Beltway? Only time will tell, but if the ongoing federal inaction is any indication, don’t expect sensible political leadership from Washington DC on this issue any time soon.

Legislation in the US House of Representatives to prohibit federal officials from prosecuting state-compliant medical cannabis patients and their providers – House Bill 689, the State’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act – remains stalled in committee and possesses a mere 20 sponsors. (No corresponding Senate legislation has been introduced.) This total equates to fewer than four percent of all federal lawmakers! By contrast, a March 2013 nationwide Fox News scientific poll reported that nearly nine out of ten Americans – including 80 percent of self-identified Republicans – believe that marijuana should be legal if a physician authorizes it. So why aren’t a greater percentage of Congressional members advocating on their behalf? Why aren’t the US representatives and senators who represent the 20 states that have enacted medical marijuana law reform openly and vociferously speaking out in defense on these programs and standing up for the rights and welfare of their constituents who depend on them?

Of course, it’s not just Congress that continues to ignore the reality of medical marijuana. In recent months, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected an administrative petition that called on the agency to reconsider the plant’s present prohibited status – a status that illogically proclaims that the plant and its organic constituents lack medical value and possess real-world harms equal to those of heroin. In January, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the DEA’s decision to summarily deny any further inquiry into the issue, supporting the DEA’s presumption that only entity qualified to make determinations regarding the plant’s therapeutic qualities was the DEA itself! In other words, none of the tens of thousands of physicians presently recommending medical cannabis and supervising their patients’ progress are qualified to make decisions regarding the substance value as a medicine. Only the DEA, a law enforcement agency whose mission it is to eradicate the cannabis plant and target and prosecute its producers and consumers, is somehow uniquely qualified – or so says Washington, DC.

As for the Office of the Attorney General, well, nobody seems clear as to where it stands on the issue. Despite previously issuing a memorandum to federal prosecutors in 2009 that directed them to not “focus federal resources … on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana,” newly released reports estimate that the Department of Justice has since spent some $300 million prosecuting alleged marijuana violations in medical cannabis states. Furthermore, recent requests from members of Congress and several state attorney generals demanding that United States Attorney General Eric Holder clarify the agency’s position regarding the rapidly changing landscape of state marijuana laws have repeatedly gone unanswered.

Much the same criticism could be said of President Obama. He publicly campaigned on the notion of tolerating state’s authority to establish their own marijuana policies free from federal interference. But since taking office he has repeatedly failed to follow through on this pledge and now becomes hopelessly tongue-tied when asked to so much as comment on the issue.

Nonetheless, while Washington DC dithers, more and more states and a greater percentage of the voting public are acknowledging that cannabis is a safe and effective therapy. They are correct. It’s time for federal officials to finally acknowledge this reality as well.