Using states' rights as a bipartisan rallying cry, the House voted 219-189 early Friday to prohibit the Justice Department from spending federal taxpayer dollars to conduct raids or otherwise interfere with medical-marijuana activities that are legal in the states.
The move came shortly after midnight with passage of an amendment to the $51.2 billion annual Commerce, Science, Justice, and Related Agencies spending bill, sponsored by GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. Two other amendments to block the Drug Enforcement Administration from interfering with industrial hemp operations legalized by states also were approved.
"Together we have made history in the battle for commonsense marijuana law reforms. It is the start of the end of a national prohibition," gushed one cosponsor, Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, in a tweet after the vote.
In all, 49 Republicans and 170 Democrats supported the amendment, with 23 members not casting a vote. The entire appropriations bill was itself later approved 321-87.
House records show Speaker John Boehner did not vote on the amendment, which is not uncommon. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers voted against the measure. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi voted in favor of the amendment, as did Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra.
The Senate has yet to vote on its version of the same spending bill. It was not certain Friday that a similar amendment would be attached to that bill. Any differences between the House and Senate measures would have to be reconciled in a two-chamber conference.
During a news conference hours after the vote, several lawmakers behind the amendment admitted surprise over its passage. Said Rohrabacher, "It is vitally important for the American people to speak up now about medical mariujana." He urged them to "get ahold" of their representatives in Washington, "and let them know how you feel about (Friday morning's) vote."
At the same time, Rohrabacher, Polis and other amendment cosponsors would not, or could not, identify a specific senator who might champion the measure in that chamber. Adding doubt about the amendment's fate is that none of the 12 annual spending bills have yet passed both the House and Senate for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.
With time running out, the budget process could again be short-circuited this election year toward a more generalized "omnibus" bill or short-term continuing resolution as a default to keep agencies funded into the new fiscal year. Those paths likely would not incorporate such a controversial amendment.
Still, Polis said "the will of the House" in supporting the amendment is at least "officially on the record" and that, in itself, will help build momentum. He said Congress is not leading the way, but only "catching up" with some states and localities.
More than half the states — at least 26 and the District of Columbia — have already enacted laws allowing patients access to some form of medical marijuana or a derivative. "The train has already left the station," argued one of the amendment's other cosponsors, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, in a short debate on the House floor before the vote.
Rohrabacher on the House floor appealed for lawmakers to make good on their professed respect for state sovereignty under the 10th Amendment's limitations on federal power and to show that "we really do believe in respecting the doctor-patient relationship."
Rohrabacher also cited a recent Pew survey that found 76 percent of Americans — including 69 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats — think that people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana should not have to serve time in jail.
"Despite overwhelming shift in public opinion, the federal government continues its hard line of oppression against medical marijuana," Rohrabacher said. But he said the DEA would be blocked from using any money in this appropriations bill to conduct raids on state-legal medical-marijuana operations or dispensaries, or otherwise interfere with state medical-marijuana laws or doctors or patients abiding by them.
Not all lawmakers who spoke on the House floor were supportive, however.
Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, cited opposition to medical marijuana from a list of medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Cancer Society. And two House members who are doctors, Republican Reps. John Fleming of Louisiana and Andy Harris of Maryland, also spoke out against it.
"First, it's the camel's nose under the tent," said Harris. He went on to explain, quoting from a DEA report this month, that organizers behind the medical-marijuana movement are not really concerned with marijuana as medicine, or such things as appropriate dosing regimens. Rather, he said, that study says backers see it as a step toward legalizing recreational marijuana.
Fleming argued that arguments for legalization, even for medicinal use, should not be made "on the backs of our kids and our grandkids — this is dangerous for them." He cited studies that show health risks.
But a third House members who is a doctor, Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, said that while marijuana is addictive if used improperly, there are valid medical reasons to use marijuana or extracts under the direction of a doctor. "It's actually less dangerous than some narcotics prescribed all over the country," said Broun, who also described this as a states-rights issue.
"We need to reserve the states' powers under the Constitution," he said.
Though it remains uncertain what the Senate will do, one group outside Congress that has been lobbying in support of the measure since first introduced in 2003 was declaring victory.
"Congress is officially pulling out of the war on medical-marijuana patients and providers," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, in a statement.
Riffle said it received more support from Republicans than ever before, and that, "It is refreshing to see conservatives in Congress sticking to their conservative principles when it comes to marijuana policy. Republicans increasingly recognize that marijuana prohibition is a failed big government program that infringes on states' rights."
"This is a historic vote, and it's yet another sign that our federal government is shifting toward a more sensible marijuana policy," he said.