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.
The therapeutic potential of marijuana for patients, including desperately ill children, became a topic of national debate. State legislative bodies around the country moved to act fast. So, for the first time this year, ultra-conservative states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Utah appeared in the list of states protected by the amendment. While a congressperson may not always be inclined to support his state’s law, protecting constituents is a powerful motivating factor, especially when some are terminally ill children.
From an initial analysis of last night’s roll call, it appears that at least 19 conservative Republicans from states that have considered or adopted so called “Charlotte’s Web” laws voted in favor of the amendment, pushing it over the victory point. Another one of the 49 GOP yes votes is the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and therefore a member of party leadership.
Other party leaders on both sides of the aisle would be wise to follow his lead. To be blunt: Medical marijuana is far more popular than Congress or the president. Democratic leaders in Congress still refuse to whip this vote (DNC Chair Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz shockingly voted no). That means the win is still up for grabs to whichever party has the wisdom and maturity to acknowledge their own complicity in continuing such a barbaric policy up until now.
Aaron Houston is the Policy Advisor of Ghost Group, an operating company that owns and manages marijuana technology companies.