Medical marijuana in Congress, again
During the first week of May, Massachusetts Democratic US Congressman Barney Frank, along with Democrats Maurice Hinchey and Sam Farr, brought Montel Williams and Angel Raich to Washington, DC.
Williams is a courageous talk show host who uses medical marijuana to defeat multiple sclerosis. Raich is a California woman who, along with Diane Monson and two anonymous cannabis growers, is waiting for the US Supreme Court to decide the epic lawsuit she filed against the federal government.
If Raich wins, medical marijuana users and growers in states that have legalized medical marijuana will be protected from federal law enforcement. If the court rules against Raich, the federal government will have unlimited license to invade medpot states and arrest citizens to enforce federal marijuana law.
Frank, Williams and other medical marijuana advocates spoke at a press conference and visited lawmakers in lobbying activities designed to promote legislation created by Frank and Hinchey that is designed to protect medical marijuana patients.
Williams told the media that he wanted Congress to legalize the use of medical marijuana and joined a group of medical marijuana advocates, imploring Congress to allow him and other sick people to use the drug without fear of prosecution.
"Living with multiple sclerosis, I'm in pain every day- pain so bad that sometimes if you brush up against me in an elevator I want to scream," Williams said. "Medical marijuana helped me when the strongest prescription painkillers failed, or left me in such a stupor I couldn't function. Patients struggling for their lives and dignity against illnesses like MS, cancer or AIDS should not be treated as criminals. I'm hurting right now. I'm hurting. Why? Because I knew I had to come to Washington, D.C., and I can't carry [any medical marijuana] because I know I'd get busted."
Frank, in reintroducing his medical cannabis bill that would allow states to set their own laws on medical marijuana, said, "The notion that a state-sanctioned practice of medicine ought to be criminalized really makes no sense."
Frank's "States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act," applies only in states that have enacted medical marijuana laws. It would prevent patients, doctors and pharmacists from being prosecuted by the federal Controlled Substances Act for medical marijuana activities authorized by state laws.
Congressmembers also debuted the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment, a financial law that prevents the Justice Department from government funds to arrest or prosecute patients and caregivers for medical marijuana activities allowed by state law.
"With our nation's law enforcement officials fighting the war on terrorism, hunting down dangerous criminals, and working to stop the sale of major narcotics, having the U.S. Department of Justice track and arrest legal users of medical marijuana is a dangerous misallocation of resources," Hinchey said. "It's flat out wrong to penalize Americans whose doctor legally prescribed marijuana to them for the relief of intense pain. It's an intrusion on patients' rights and it's an intrusion on states' rights. Since the Department of Justice has failed to act appropriately, Congress must act to prevent the Attorney General's office from arresting and prosecuting Americans who are using medical marijuana in accordance with their state's law."
Agreeing with Hinchey and Frank was a Republican, Dana Rohrabacher.
"It is especially important for conservatives to support this bill to allow the people of various states to determine their own policies with regard to medical use of marijuana," said Rohrabacher. "Local control of local issues is a key element of the conservative Republican philosophy."
Frank is a veteran Congressional medical marijuana advocate, probably the best friend that marijuana has in Congress. He's the only openly gay member of Congress, and he's the only member of Congress to have consistently put forward pro-cannabis federal legislation. He was first elected to Congress in 1980. In 1995, he introduced H.R. 2618, a law that sought to allow medical use of marijuana for serious medical conditions, and that stipulated that an "adequate supply" of marijuana be made available to patients.
This was a major legislative action: at the time, voter-approved medical cannabis laws like California's Prop. 215 were yet not in place. Frank's support of marijuana was seen by the marijuana community as amazing and heroic. Frank's critics, many of whom are homophobes who almost succeeded in removing him from office during a "gay prostitute" scandal in 1989, say his support for cannabis is indicative of bad morals.
H.R. 2618 was notable because it was innovative, ahead of its time, and had nearly two dozen co-sponsors in a Congress not known for its progressive attitudes. The bill lost, but Franks didn't give up. He wrote the "States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act," and began trying to get Congress to consider and pass it in the late 1980's.
The proposed law contains a lengthy list of positive changes long sought by cannabis advocates. It transfers marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act to Schedule Two. Schedule One status means that the government isolates marijuana with heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs in a regulatory and statutory category that prevents it from being used medically, and which has resulted in crucial scientific research being blocked or delayed. If marijuana was placed in Schedule Two, physicians could prescribe it.
The "rescheduling" of cannabis is being pursued by the Coalition to Reschedule Cannabis. The group has formally petitioned the DEA and the federal Health and Human Services Department to consider all scientific evidence related to marijuana as medicine, and to place cannabis on Schedule Two immediately.
Rescheduling will be one of the last avenues for change available to medpot proponents if the Supreme Court rules against Raich. Frank's bill achieves the same thing legislatively as what the Coalition is trying to achieve through regulatory review.
Frank's proposed law also prevents feds from interfering with a doctor's ability to prescribe or recommend marijuana, a patient's right to get such advice from a physician, and a pharmacy's ability to obtain and store marijuana for medical purposes.
The law puts the hammer on a federal agency that has been hostile to marijuana- the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It prevents FDA from using federal laws to stop state governments or agencies from producing or distributing marijuana for medical users.
When Frank put forward the "States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act" in 2001 and in subsequent sessions of Congress, he was clever about how he framed the proposal, pitching it to conservative members of Congress who dislike marijuana but claim to believe in state's rights. The state's rights issue is particularly potent right now, and is one of the main issues in the Raich Supreme Court case.
"When doctors recommend the use of marijuana for their patients and states are willing to permit it," Frank explained, "I think it's wrong for the federal government to subject either the doctors or the patients to criminal prosecution. Nothing in this proposal makes marijuana more available for the general population. Conservatives often profess their support for states' rights, and if they truly believe in states' rights, they should support this bill. So, I am delighted that some of my conservative colleagues, including Congressmen Ron Paul and Dana Rohrabacher, have joined in this effort."
Simply put, the question in the Raich Supreme Court case is how much the federal government can interfere with state laws and citizens. Before he stole the election in 2000, George W. Bush said medical marijuana was a "state's rights" issue, and that if he was elected president his administration would not interfere with state medical cannabis laws. After he was installed in the White House by the Supreme Court, Bush did an about-face, with Attorney General John Ashcroft and DEA directors leading federal police attacks against medical cannabis patients, providers and growers in California.
These attacks prompted Raich to file a lawsuit against Ashcroft, and caused Frank to push for state medical marijuana rights.
"People who are suffering from severe or terminal illnesses who find a measure of relief from marijuana ought to be able to use it without being treated like criminals," Frank said. "This bill offers an opportunity for my conservative colleagues to decide if they really want to be consistent on the question of states' rights or if they think the federal government should tell states what to do."
In Congress, getting a law passed means gathering allies who will co-sponsor proposals and help them win approval. Frank's legislation is usually co-sponsored by a reliable list of Democrats, including Hinchey, Farr, Henry Waxman, John Conyers, Robert Wexler, Dennis Kucinich and Nancy Pelosi. These legislators are generally viewed as progressives who oppose war, fascism, and who are harsh critics of George W. Bush.
The lack of Republican support for medical cannabis proposals indicates a clear Congressional divide, one of few real differences between Democrats and Republicans in a country that is increasingly realizing that it only has one political party- the Republicrats- consisting of Democrats and Republicans who agree on most issues, presenting voters with no real alternatives.
Lack of Republican support is a main reason that Frank's legislation has not yet become law, although Franks has managed to attract a few Republicans and independent legislators, such as Congressmen Ron Paul and Dana Rohrabacher. It is noteworthy that every time Frank re-introduces his legislation, he has a few more co-sponsors on board with him.
For Frank, the medical cannabis issue is about compassion, medical science, common sense, and democracy.
"This is an issue on which people around the country are ahead of the politicians," he says. "Many elected officials are hesitant to support any proposals that might be viewed as weakening our drug laws, but I believe this is a common sense idea that will give some people who are suffering a measure of relief. If doctors are willing to recommend marijuana for their patients, and states willing to permit it, it's wrong for the federal government to subject doctors or patients to prosecution. Nothing in this proposal would make marijuana more available for the general population. The bill is limited to medicinal use of marijuana with a doctor's approval. I would add that taking legal action against those who use small quantities of marijuana for medical purposes is a highly questionable use of scarce prosecutorial resources at a time when they could be put to much better use."
Frank and his allies have also taken legislative aim at another problem caused by federal marijuana laws: when medical marijuana defendants are on trial in federal courts, judges do not allow them to mention medical marijuana, claiming that there is no such thing as medical marijuana because federal law says so.
In the case of medical marijuana growers like Cannabis Culture cultivation guru Ed Rosenthal, who was arrested by DEA two years ago for growing medical cannabis, not being able to mention medpot in federal court meant he was unable to fight the charges against him.
The judge in Rosenthal's case, as in most other federal cannabis cases, refused to allow Rosenthal's lawyers to raise the issue of medical marijuana. Jurors convicted Rosenthal of three felonies, then found out the judge had prevented them from hearing all the facts of the case, including Rosenthal's valid claim that he had been immunized from prosecution by the City of Oakland. Many jurors appeared at a news conference, angrily condemning the judge and federal medpot laws.
New legislation (H.R. 1717) proposed by Farr, Frank, Rohrabacher, Hinchey, George Miller, Linda Sanchez and other Congresspersons, amends the Controlled Substances Act to allow defendants to use medical cannabis as an "affirmative defense" against charges in any venue, as long as their cannabis involvement is legal under state laws.
The "Truth in Trials Act" guarantees that a person facing prosecution for any marijuana -related offense will have the right to introduce evidence demonstrating that marijuana activities for which the person stands accused were performed in compliance with State law regarding the medical use of marijuana.
The Act goes even further, seeking to prevent police from seizing and destroying medical marijuana if the marijuana is possessed by the defendant in compliance with State law regarding the medical use of marijuana.
The law goes so far as to specify that seized marijuana must not be destroyed, and must be returned to defendants within ten days after they are judged to be bona fide medpot people who should not have been arrested and prosecuted.
In late 2004, federal legislators created another bill that could assist medical cannabis users, but this bill is tricky, and many medpot advocates suspect it's a Trojan horse. This bill is NOT co-sponsored by Barney Frank, and there's a good reason for that: the bill was introduced by long-time drug warrior Republican Mark Souder of Indiana.
Titled "the Safe and Effective Drug Act," Souder's bill directs the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to analyze scientific information about marijuana's safety and efficacy, and orders the FDA to distribute information discovered by NIDA.
A simplistic reading of Souder's proposal seems to indicate it would force an objective review of medical marijuana research. However, the devil is in the details, and medpot proponents are warning that Souder has probably not done an abrupt turn-around and become a friend of marijuana, but that his proposal is just another attempt to attack cannabis. It's a set-up designed to find bad things about medical cannabis, critics allege, and their fears are probably justified. Souder's "meta-analysis of existing medical marijuana data" does not require the government to do new research. It relies on old research, much of which is biased against cannabis. It also limits review to smoked cannabis, rather than the entire range of self-administered cannabis products and technologies that many patients use, and requires too short of a time frame (120 days) for a thorough analysis of all data.
NIDA is not known as a fair, scientific organization; NIDA assumes marijuana is a highly-addictive drug of abuse, and past NIDA studies have been blatantly unscientific, demonstrating a clear intent to find negative things about cannabis. NIDA has a monopoly on official cannabis research, and has prevented statured scientists from obtaining research cannabis and conducting studies on cannabis, vaporizers, food-based cannabis, and other medpot issues.
NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow recently visited Vancouver and warned Canadians not to decriminalize cannabis.
"Marijuana should not be legalized for any reason," she proclaimed. "It contains this chemical, THC, that can lead to addiction. When people were taking marijuana in the past, they were consuming a very weak drug. The experiences that people may have had when in their 40s and 50s, who say 'I never became addicted to that drug,' that does not necessarily pertain to the type of compound we're seeing today."
In 1999, the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) contradicted NIDA's long antipathy to therapeutic cannabis, saying:
"For patients such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy, and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication."
Distrust of NIDA is matched by distrust of Souder. He's been vocal in urging the Supreme Court to rule against Raich, and has threatened Canadians with border problems if the Canadian government softens cannabis laws.
"The FDA has failed to educate the public against a dangerous drug whose dangers have been kept from the public by those promoting its use," Souder said when he announced his legislation. "Vioxx? No. Marijuana. The fact is smoking marijuana has no scientifically proven medical benefits. Smoking marijuana puts users at risk for countless serious health problems and may worsen the conditions for which patients wrongly believe it is treating. And real medical alternatives exist for patients suffering from the conditions proponents of smoking marijuana claim it can treat. And again, patients who are smoking marijuana are being denied legitimate care that could improve rather than worsen their medical conditions."
Congressman Sam Farr, who has joined with Barney Frank in authoring intelligent marijuana legislation, warned his colleagues about Souder's motives and his proposal.
"I would urge all Members to cosponsor this legislation if it were truly designed to produce an honest evaluation of the scientific data," said Farr. "I am, however, skeptical that this will be the case, given that the bill only refers to 'smoked' marijuana and is proposing that the examination be carried out by NIDA, an agency which is actively blocking medical marijuana research while consistently highlighting and exaggerating the drug's negative consequences."
An honest evaluation of marijuana, says Farr, would echo the words of DEA chief administrative law judge Francis Young, who, after a two-year study, concluded in an official ruling in 1988 that "marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance."
So it looks like Souder's bill is a red herring, but if the government really was to do objective research on medical marijuana, the research would be a direct attack against drug czar John Walters, DEA, FDA, and other agencies and individuals that constantly claim that SMOKED marijuana is not a medicine and is always harmful.
The smoked marijuana debate is especially important now that a whole-plant, organic cannabis extract, Sativex, has been approved for use in Canada. Sativex contains two primary cannabinoids delivered in a spray. Sativex manufacturer GW Pharmaceuticals, in an apparent attempt to capitalize on US government paranoia about smoked cannabis, has hired former drug warriors to lobby US regulators to approve Sativex for the American market.
"Smoking is bad for you," says GW spokesman Mark Rogerson, who was comparing Sativex to smoked marijuana when asked how GW will gain regulatory approval for Sativex in America. "You don't have to take my word for that. Just look at a package of cigarettes and see what it says. We don't regard smoking as an acceptable method of delivery for a medicine."
Rogerson doesn't regard smoking marijuana as an acceptable medical delivery method, but millions of cannabis smokers see no problem with it, and Souder's study, if it was properly set up with adequate timelines, funding, scope and objectivity, would surely show that all the various ways of administering natural cannabis- via smoke, extracts, concentrates, sprays, food, tinctures, vaporizers, etc.- are safer than the chemical drugs that cannabis competes with.
Barney Frank, who has spent 25 years being targeted by right-wing gaybashers and other conservative morons, is undeterred by Souder, NIDA and other marijuana opponents. He continues to create new pro-cannabis legislation and to vote against fascists.
In past sessions of Congress, he voted against a proposal to put US soldiers on anti-cannabis patrols at the Canadian border. He voted against the disenfranchisement of Washington, DC voters who approved medical marijuana several years ago, but have seen Congress block implementation of medical marijuana laws in DC because unlike the 50 states, DC is totally controlled by Congress. He voted against a 1998 law that would have required anyone working for the federal government to be subject to random, unannounced drug testing. He was one of few Congresspersons to defend Bill Clinton when Republicans were trying to lynch Clinton for having an affair with a young woman.
Yes, Frank is one of the few good politicians in America. Cannabis lovers are indebted to him, and should send him letters of thanks at the address listed below. In the meantime, Frank looks forward to the reaction when Angel Raich and other medical cannabis patients visit members of Congress as part of activities that coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which helps sponsor public events that attract favorable notice for medpot advocates.
Frank's office said Raich and other patients are planning a visit to the office of a leading Congressional medpot opponent, where they will present a list of patients who died after a federal raid on their California cannabis garden.
"I'm in this battle literally for my life," said Raich, who has various illnesses including an inoperable brain tumor, seizures, and severe pain. "Now is the time for Congress to step in to help us sick, disabled and dying patients. However my case turns out, something will be done if it takes every last breath in my body."
Washington Address of Congressman Barney Frank:
2252 Rayburn H.O.B.
Washington, DC 20515-2104