Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 25, 2014

What’s Next for Pot in Congress?

MicaMinkRRMedMaj 445x301 Whats Next for Pot in Congress?

This photo from the Roll Call archives showcases the many decades that legalized pot advocates have been fighting for medical marijuana. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Activists cheered a House vote last month to bar the federal government from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. It was a watershed moment for pro-marijuana advocates — and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — who have been waiting for years for Congress to take an affirmative up-or-down vote on any related issue.

But in the afterglow of this long-sought legislative victory, it’s not clear just what comes next. Will bipartisan support for the measure, adopted as an amendment to the House’s fiscal 2015 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, inspire future action in the chamber? Will the Senate, poised in the weeks ahead to consider its own C-J-S bill, follow the House’s lead?

That the House had a vote on this amendment at all was unusual. Unlike in the Senate, the House Republican majority allows appropriations bills to come to the floor under open rules, meaning that any lawmaker can force a vote on an amendment deemed related without having to ask party leaders for permission.

That’s what happened during the dark of night May 30 House vote, before lawmakers went home for recess. (The amendment was approved 219-189.) Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, told CQ Roll Call it’s important to keep that in mind when evaluating what advocates can realistically expect going forward.

“It wasn’t a whipped vote,” St. Pierre said. “Those who voted for or against it were pretty confident that it wasn’t going to go too much further than what passed last week. … They saw this as a freebie.”

St. Pierre added that there are senators “who would rather impale themselves on a sword in the middle of the Senate floor than ever vote for anything at all that would diminish or retard” the federal prohibition on marijuana legalization.

But Rep. Earl Blumenauer, one of the biggest stalwarts of legalizing marijuana, doesn’t agree that this will be the last word on the subject before the end of the 113th Congress.

The Oregon Democrat, who co-sponsored the House amendment, told CQ Roll Call he has had “several conversations” with senators who might champion a medical marijuana amendment in consideration of the C-J-S bill. Plus, senators marked up their version of the spending measure in the Appropriations Committee last week, and adopted language blocking the Justice Department from using funds to deter research on industrial hemp.

Blumenauer also thinks two stand-alone measures he’s introduced could pass. A bill that would allow legal marijuana businesses to benefit from tax deductions could become an amendment to a tax extenders package. Another measure, which would permit such businesses to hold bank accounts, could hitch a ride on financial services legislation.

“There are number of things I think can happen between now and the end of this congressional session,” Blumenauer said. “I’m not at all discouraged.”

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, before practical conversations about next steps got underway, supporters celebrated what was undoubtedly a symbol of shifting public opinion on the issue. The vote breakdown illustrated that fact — the bipartisan coalition of sponsors included Blumenauer and ultra-conservative California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, and the votes for and against the amendment defied the typical partisan, ideological, socioeconomic and geographic fault lines.

Straightforward, up-or-down votes on the question of marijuana are few and far between in Congress, and advocates seized on the breakdown as a way to gauge where members stand.

For years, groups such as NORML have had to rely on less scientific ways to quantify lawmakers’ positions, such as collecting letters to the editor and details on support from constituents back home.

“If nothing else, when those votes came in, I could have just crossed off the vote’s title and wrote in, ‘NORML’s friends and enemies list,’” St. Pierre said.

A week after the dust settled, the “Vote Medical Marijuana” campaign housed within the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access demonstrated what else it could do with that kind of information. On June 5, the organization announced it would air 30-second TV spots on MSNBC in Maryland and South Florida to target two members who voted “no” on the C-J-S amendment — Republican Andy Harris and Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Americans for Safe Access spokesman Kris Hermes said the group hopes to run ads against other members leading up to the Nov. 4 midterm elections.

“I’m not going to say people shouldn’t vote for Wasserman Schultz or Harris, but I think it should weigh heavily on their decision on who to vote for, and our goal is to have a federal legislature, a Congress, that is voting consistently with the interests of its constituents,” Hermes explained.

Wasserman Schultz and Harris responded to the ads by defending their positions in written statements.

“I do not believe, regardless of the issue, that it is appropriate to limit the Executive Branch’s ability to enforce current federal law at their discretion,” said Schultz, who is also the Democratic National Committee chairwoman. “As a cancer survivor, mother and lawmaker, I am acutely empathetic to the suffering of people with terminal illnesses and chronic pain.”

Harris, who was an anesthesiologist before coming to Congress in 2011, had a more technical gripe.

“The term ‘medical marijuana’ implies that marijuana is like any other medication that a physician, like myself, would prescribe,” Harris said. “It’s not.”

Whatever happens, there are members who support expanding access to marijuana who refuse to be daunted by political realities in the face of an exciting time to be working on the issue.

Count Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, another co-sponsor of the medical marijuana amendment, among them.

“History was made by politicians from both sides of the aisle, as we now have a majority of Congress on the record saying that states have the prerogative to regulate marijuana as they see fit,” Polis, whose state recently legalized marijuana for all purposes, said in an emailed statement. “I don’t know where this bill is going, but it sends a message.”

Correction: June 9, 9:49 a.m.

Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this post misquoted a statement from Rep. Andy Harris.

  • Immortal Illumined

    the greatest plant in the universe is almost free, LET FREEDOM RING! 13

    The Senators are decades behind us on this issue…even my cali senators are embarrassing

    1000s of my friends and family have grown 30-99 plants for 20 years, thanks for keeping prices high and NORCAL wealthy…#1 crop in cali = $15 Billion Untaxed…

    “any doctor against marijuana is a doctor of death” – cali secret 420

    from 0 states to half the country, from low 20% approval to almost 70%, cali runs this planet by 2 decades, time to tie marijuana to the 2014, 2016 elections, out with the old, in with the new

    20 years behind us southern states, sad and scary….nobody denies freedoms like the south, nobody…the top ten incarcerators on the planet are southern states and more blacks are in prison then were slaves before the civil war…even if marijuana reforms did pass the republiCANTS in charge would deny you all your freedoms, centuries of practice…no matter though, we never planned on getting your backwards brethren from day one, half the country already but not one southern state, lol…not 1….the new generations are taking over in the south and they are nothing like their freedom denying parents, let’s ride…

    Deaths by Alcohol: Millions
    Deaths by Tobacco: Millions
    Deaths by Prescription Drugs: Quadrupled in last decade
    Deaths by Guns: Millions
    Deaths by the food we are fed: Millions
    Deaths by Marijuana: 0, ever…they are killing my American family while denying freedom

    love and freedom forever

    AMERICA’S WAR ON DRUGS IS A WAR ON AMERICANS! 33

  • William Clark

    Thanks for the chance to comment here.

    I’m convinced that prohibition of marijuana is a premise built upon a tissue of
    lies: Concern For Public Safety. Our new laws save hundreds of lives every year, on the highways alone. In November of 2011 a study at the University of Colorado found that, in the thirteen states that decriminalized marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic fatalities have dropped by nearly nine percent—now nearly ten percent in Michigan–while sales of beer went flat by five percent. No wonder Big Alcohol opposes it. Ambitious,unprincipled, profit-driven undertakers might be tempted too.

    Actually, most people–and particularly patients who medicate with marijuana–use it to replace prescription drugs or alcohol.

    I recently reviewed the Federal Census stats on yearly driving fatalities state
    by state, from 1990 to 2009. All states, ‘legal’ or not, have seen their death
    rates drop, but on average, those with medical laws posted declines 12% larger than the non-medical states. Public Safety Announcements and vehicles with airbags must have helped as well, consistently throughout the country, without affecting the disproportion between the ‘legal states’ and those ‘not yet, in 2009′.

    In 2012 a study released by 4AutoinsuranceQuote cited statistics revealing that marijuana users are safer drivers than non-marijuana users, as “the only
    significant effect that marijuana has on operating on a motor vehicle is slower
    driving”, which “is arguably a positive thing”. Despite occasional accidents technically classified (and eagerly reported by police-blotter ‘journalists’) as ‘marijuana-related’, when in fact a mix of substances was involved. Alcohol, most likely, and/or prescription drugs, nicotine, caffeine, meth, cocaine, heroin, and a trace of the marijuana passed at a party last week. But on the whole, as revealed in big-time, insurance-industry stats, within the broad swath of mature, experienced consumers, slower and more cautious driving shows up in significant numbers. Legalization should improve those numbers further.

    Marijuana has many benefits, most of which are under-reported or never mentioned in American newspapers. Research at the University of Saskatchewan indicates that, unlike alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or Nancy (“Just say, ‘No!’”) Reagan’s beloved nicotine, marijuana is a neuro-protectant which actually encourages brain-cell growth. Research in Spain (the Guzman study) and other countries has discovered that it has tumor-shrinking, anti-carcinogenic properties. These were confirmed by the 30-year Tashkin population study at UCLA.

    Drugs are man-made, cooked up in labs, for the sake of patents and the profits gained by them. They are often useful, but typically come with cautionary notes and lists of side effects as long as one’s arm. ‘The works of Man are flawed.’

    Marijuana is a medicinal herb, the most benign and versatile in history. “Cannabis” in Latin, and “kaneh bosm” in the old Hebrew scrolls, quite literally the Biblical Tree of Life, used by early Christians to treat everything from skin diseases to deep pain and despair. The very name, “Christ” translates as “the anointed one”. Well then, anointed with what? It’s a fair question. And it wasn’t holy water, friends. Holy water came into wide use in the Middle Ages. In Biblical times it was used by a few tribes of Greek pagans. But Christ was neither Greek nor pagan.

    Medicinal oil, for the Prince of Peace. A formula from the Biblical era has been
    rediscovered. It specifies a strong dose of oil from kaneh bosom, ‘the fragrant
    cane’ of a dozen uses: ink, paper, rope, nutrition. . . . It was clothing on their backs and incense in their temples. And a ‘skinful’ of medicinal oil could certainly calm one’s nerves, imparting a sense of benevolence and connection with all living things. No wonder that the ‘anointed one’ could gain a spark, an insight, a sense of the divine, and the confidence to convey those feelings to friends and neighbors.

    What gets to me are the politicians, prosecutors, and police who pose on church steps or kneeling in prayer on their campaign trails, but can’t face the
    scientific or the historical truths about cannabis, Medicinal Herb Number One,
    safe and effective for thousands of years, and celebrated by most of the world’s major religions.

  • downthelaw

    The prohibition against pot is the saddest law we have today. It is sick what it does to the American public who the majority of supports legalization. And the main body of people who supports prohibition it is the DEA and we all know they have an agenda on this subject. The last thing the DEA cares about is public safety, so there stance is only towards their call for funding with the prohibition on hand. They are reckless and shouldn’t have a say so in the matter. The people’s voice should be the big factor here and to see that that voice is getting the issue nowhere fast shows us that the government don’t care what we the people think or want.

  • Immortal Illumined

    the greatest plant in the universe is almost free, LET FREEDOM RING! 13

    ENLIGHTENMENT…i was a brainwashed evil, mean, christian conservative until i tried it at 17 years old…i hated gays, immigrants, women’s rights, blacks, marijuana, i was Rush Limbaugh’s #1 fan….until i smoked marijuana….changed the world

    1000s of my friends and family have grown 30-99 plants for 20 years, thanks for keeping prices high and NORCAL wealthy…#1 crop in cali = $15 Billion Untaxed…

    “any doctor against marijuana is a doctor of death” – cali secret 420

    from 0 states to half the country, from low 20% approval to almost 70%, cali runs this planet by 2 decades, time to tie marijuana to the 2014, 2016 elections, out with the old, in with the new

    20 years behind us southern states, sad and scary….nobody denies freedoms like the south, nobody…the top ten incarcerators on the planet are southern states and more blacks are in prison then were slaves before the civil war…even if marijuana reforms did pass the republiCANTS in charge would deny you all your freedoms, centuries of practice…no matter though, we never planned on getting your backwards brethren from day one, half the country already but not one southern state, lol…not 1….the new generations are taking over in the south and they are nothing like their freedom denying parents, let’s ride…

    Deaths by Alcohol: Millions
    Deaths by Tobacco: Millions
    Deaths by Prescription Drugs: Quadrupled in last decade
    Deaths by Guns: Millions
    Deaths by the food we are fed: Millions
    Deaths by Marijuana: 0, ever…they are killing my American family while denying freedom

    love and freedom forever

    AMERICA’S WAR ON DRUGS IS A WAR ON AMERICANS! 33

  • Immortal Illumined

    the Texas GOP banned gay republicans from setting up a booth at their convention, heartless and soulless

    these are the people running this country, cold blooded devils

  • Voiceof thecitizens

    I urge the all senators to support the amendment to end DEA involvement in medical cannabis/marijuana states. US patent 6630507 is a slap in your face if you do not get behind this amendment. Citizens in twenty-two states have passed laws supporting medical cannabis because it is the right thing to do.

  • White Army

    Where administration is assigned to “experts”, it will be naturally believed that any means necessary are legitimate in the majority’s name.

  • Braven Eworld

    Since liberty cannot guarantee satisfaction, some people view the challenge of making their own way as more of a strain than an opportunity.

  • Duq Tape

    Darwin’s concept of biological evolution was preceded by theories of cultural evolution that identified the relationship between Sanskrit and the Greek language.

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