Pot Lobby Aims High Next Year

Marijuana Advocates See Friendlier Congress

Posted December 5, 2008 at 5:35pm

As the nation braces for next month’s historic power shift, the pro-marijuana lobby is readying an agenda that will quickly test how hard the winds of change really are blowing in Washington, D.C.

With the challenges of a failing economy and two ongoing wars, activists aren’t expecting President-elect Barack Obama to call for legalization in his inaugural address.

But after eight years of playing defense against an inflexible Bush White House, they’re confident that there will be at least some relaxation in the federal government’s attitude that marijuana is a dangerous drug.

It won’t be easy. After all, the marijuana lobby is one of the few groups advocating on behalf of an illegal substance.

Still, its lobbyists say framing the debate in scientific terms by stressing its medicinal benefits for cancer victims and other seriously ill patients, and as a states’ rights issues that conservatives can embrace, they can steer the debate away from marijuana’s stereotype as a nefarious gateway product that inevitably leads to hard drug use.

“I think it’s fair to say that there will be opportunities that didn’t exist in the Bush administration,” said Aaron Houston, the chief lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports relaxing state and federal marijuana laws.

MPP and other advocacy groups have largely focused their efforts at the state level in recent years — with some success. Massachusetts voters in November approved the nation’s first marijuana decriminalization law, while Michigan became the 13th state to allow its medical use.

However, the Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that federal law trumps state laws on marijuana possession, meaning that medical users can still face federal criminal prosecution.

And the plant’s current status as a Schedule 1 drug, in the same category as heroin, LSD and Ecstasy, also bars most research on its medical benefits, which include relief for the nausea that accompanies chemotherapy.

Advocates are hopeful that a Democratic president and Congress will take another look. The movement’s optimism stems in part from Obama’s candor about his past use of marijuana and cocaine, which he has called a mistake.

By contrast, former President Bill Clinton famously claimed that he didn’t inhale when he smoked pot, an oft-derided statement that deflated the hopes of marijuana reformers.

“I never understood that line,” Obama told an Iowa crowd during a 2007 campaign stop. “The point was to inhale. That was the point.”

Obama in the past has expressed sympathy for state medical marijuana efforts and decriminalization — the top priorities of the pot lobby — although he has also explicitly opposed outright legalization.

(The distinction is significant: Decriminalization could be implemented administratively by directing federal authorities not to prosecute certain marijuana violations, such as possession of small quantities. Legalization would likely require changing federal law, which would raise complex legal and regulatory issues.)

As a Senator, Obama in 2007 voted against an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that would have subjected medical marijuana to Food and Drug Administration approval; critics say the measure was intended to undercut state medical marijuana laws.

While the inauguration is still six weeks away, MPP and other groups are already pressing Obama to live up to a campaign promise to end Drug Enforcement Administration raids against medical marijuana users and suppliers operating in accordance with state laws.

“I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It’s not a good use of our resources,” Obama told a New Hampshire activist in 2007 during an exchange captured on a video that is available on YouTube.

MPP recently posted an “open letter” video on its Web site reminding Obama of the pledge. Other advocates are calling on Obama to quickly ease federal restrictions on marijuana research and issue an executive order ensuring medical care for veterans who use medical marijuana under approved state laws. A spokesman for the Obama transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

Reformers are eyeing Senate confirmation hearings to hold Obama’s nominees’ “feet to the fire” on the president-elect’s campaign promises, according to Caren Woodson, the director of government relations for Americans for Safe Access, a pro-medical marijuana group.

A few early Obama picks are already causing sweaty palms for the reformers: Eric Holder, Obama’s nominee for attorney general, called for a crackdown on marijuana users in 1996 when he was the U.S. attorney in D.C. The nominee to head the DEA will be another key signal on pot, advocates say.

Last week, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws took the unusual step of appealing directly to Obama about the rumored nomination of outgoing Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) as the nation’s “drug czar.”

In a Dec. 1 letter, the group cited the Congressman’s record of voting against “policies that seek to reduce drug-related harm,” including syringe exchanges. A Ramstad spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre said the group wouldn’t have bothered sending such a letter to the Bush administration, which he said wouldn’t even let his group attend press conferences of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That office did not respond to a request for comment.

St. Pierre’s own wish list for the president-elect is the establishment of a federal commission to review marijuana policies — similar to the Shafer Commission on “Marihuana,” established by former President Richard Nixon, which ultimately recommended decriminalization of the drug.

“We’re willing to take the gamble that it will opine that marijuana should be decriminalized,” he said, adding that creating such a panel would allow Obama to punt on marijuana for a year or two while providing political cover for relaxed policies should the panel urge decriminalization.

However, St. Pierre said he is troubled by Obama’s incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), whom he has blamed for helping scuttle marijuana reform efforts as domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House out of fears of being painted as soft on crime.

Advocates say it’s unclear whether Emanuel’s views on marijuana have evolved since the Clinton era. St. Pierre said Emanuel reversed course in 2007 and voted for a bipartisan amendment by Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that would have blocked the DEA from interfering with state-approved medical marijuana laws.

But MPP’s Houston said Emanuel returned a $1,000 campaign donation from his group earlier this year. “That was disappointing,” he said. A spokesman confirmed Emanuel returned the money.

Emanuel was one of dozens of Members to receive donations this year from the MPP, which is heavily funded by Peter Lewis, the billionaire chairman of Progressive Insurance Cos.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, other House Democratic heavyweights who received donations include Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.); Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (Mass), who sponsored decriminalization and medical marijuana bills this Congress; Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (Calif.); Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.); and incoming Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.).

Reps. Ron Paul (Texas) and Paul Broun (Ga.) were the sole GOP recipients in 2008, Houston said, although he noted that the National Republican Congressional Committee accepted a donation from the group in 2007. “We wanted to demonstrate this is an issue that cuts across party lines,” he said.

Broun attracted the group’s attention after he voted for the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment in his very first House vote, earning criticism from his district in the process.

“We look for people who are courageous in this issue,” Houston said. The donation to Broun — a doctor and supporter of states’ rights — highlights the two things that Houston said can attract moderate or conservative lawmakers: belief in marijuana’s medicinal uses and and belief in a limited federal government.

One early Congressional test will be whether Democrats will extend a federal ban that prevents D.C.’s 1998 medical marijuana law from taking effect. The ban, which advocates say has routinely been included in spending bills, expires in March with the continuing resolution.

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), noted her long-standing support for states to permit medicinal marijuana use, but he indicated she would leave the legislative lifting to Frank, Hinchey, Rohrabacher and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.).

Advocates also plan to step up outreach in the more deliberative Senate, where scant attention has been paid to marijuana issues. “We have nothing going on in the Senate,” St. Pierre said.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not respond to a request for comment on his marijuana views, but Nevada is among the states that allow its medicinal use.

One item conspicuously absent from the near-term marijuana agenda is full-blown legalization.

While polls show widespread public support for medical marijuana and decriminalization, NORML’s St. Pierre said the movement has more work to do before pushing what he calls “the big enchilada.”

“I could not look Obama in the eye and say the American public supports this,” he said.