June 15, 2005 -- Lawmakers on Wednesday voted down a measure that would have barred the federal government from prosecuting patients who use marijuana under doctor's orders in states with laws that allow the practice.
The House vote comes a week after the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the federal government may still enforce national antidrug laws in the states allowing medical marijuana use. The decision effectively gave Congress the right to decide how to regulate marijuana, regardless of state laws.
But lawmakers voted 161 to 264 against an amendment that would have barred the Department of Justice from spending any money arresting or prosecuting medical marijuana users. The amendment gained 13 more votes than an identical measure last year.
Medical marijuana supporters have long argued that smoking marijuana can offer relief to patients suffering from chronic pain or cancer, AIDS/HIV patients with severe weight loss, or nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. In Washington, the debate has largely focused on whether California, Montana, and eight other states with medical marijuana laws have the right to regulate their own medical practices.
"Let's not have a power grab by the federal government at the expense of those poor patients and the right of doctors trying to make these decisions," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California republican and one of the amendment's chief sponsors. The state has allowed patients to use marijuana under a doctor's supervision since 1996.
Medical Marijuana Under Fire
Opponents argued that the measure would open the door to legalizing marijuana by legitimizing it as a medicine.
Several also warned that allowing states to set medication policy would undermine the Food and Drug Administration, which approves new drugs and monitors their safety.
Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) attacked claims that marijuana has medicinal use, comparing it to the snake oil sold to unsuspecting consumers in the early 1900s and calling doctors who prescribe it "quacks."
Active Ingredient Already in Other Medications
Marijuana's active ingredient, THC, is already available in an FDA-approved pill used to treat nausea, Souder said. "You isolate the chemicals inside to treat the disease, you do not smoke pot."
"It's seeking to establish a small sliver of marijuana [in federal law]...and eventually be able to legalize this substance," said Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa).
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) told lawmakers that marijuana is less toxic than many narcotic drugs already approved for use by American doctors. "This is not a bill to make marijuana generally available and it is not a bill to put it in baby formula," he said.
Wednesday's vote represented its third defeat in as many trips to the House floor in recent years. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) tells WebMD that he will continue offering the amendment to appropriations bills in the coming years.
State Situation Unclear
Despite the measure's rejection and last week's Supreme Court ruling, it remains unclear whether federal drug agencies will now step up raids that so far have been rare.
Just 16 medical marijuana growing operations in legalized states have taken place since 1996, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a group favoring medical marijuana laws.
Several states, including Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Alabama, are still considering laws allowing marijuana use by certain patients. It remains unclear whether the Supreme Court's decision will hinder the passage of those bills.
The Rhode Island Senate passed a medical marijuana bill on June 7, though New York Senate leaders pulled their support for a bill following last week's ruling, Hinchey said.