WASHINGTON — Medical marijuana is now sold in nearly half of all states, and even one red state has legalized it for recreational use. Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are clamoring for access to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Loosening pot laws polls better in three swing states than any 2016 presidential candidate.
But House Republicans have so far declined to keep pace with shifting public opinion. They did so again late Wednesday, when a rare bipartisan pot proposal died a quiet death in the House that would have reclassified marijuana so that national laboratories could conduct “credible research on its safety and efficacy as a medical treatment.”
The amendment to a bill scheduled for debate Thursday on the House floor would have encouraged the National Institutes of Health and the Drug Enforcement Administration to work together to allow studies of the benefits and risks of marijuana to treat cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions.
Federal marijuana prohibition
The vote is the latest action to reflect national Republicans’ uncertainty on how to address shifting public sentiment about marijuana use. Although the GOP has supported steps to allow state medical-marijuana programs to flourish, Republicans generally have not supported efforts to advance national policy on legalization.
When a Senate committee this year passed a measure to let doctors discuss marijuana with patients at Veterans Affairs clinics, House Republicans shot it down. When the District legalized weed for personal use, a powerful House committee chairman threatened the city’s mayor with jail time.
House Republicans have defended their opposition to pot. There is no evidence, they have said, that loosening marijuana laws would do anything but destroy the brains of the nation’s adolescents, let alone offer benefits to veterans.
The lack of evidence, however, can be traced to congressional Republicans who have made it all but impossible for federal agencies to fund objective testing on the effects of marijuana use.
The amendment that died Wednesday was seen by some as a potential game-changer. With 23 states allowing medical marijuana — and a handful plus the District of Columbia having outright legalized it — some House Republicans (and Democrats too) thought that it was finally time to allow more federal testing of marijuana.
For Republican opponents, the research could provide either evidence to continue holding the line or solid ground for the party to begin tiptoeing toward the mainstream.
Perhaps surprisingly was the House Republicans’ most outspoken critic of legalization over the past two years who co-sponsored the measure.
Maryland Rep. Andy Harris, a doctor and author of a measure in Congress that has left legalization in the District of Columbia in limbo, said more science was the way to go.
“We need science to clearly determine whether marijuana has medicinal benefits and, if so, what is the best way to gain those benefits,” he said Wednesday before the House Rules Committee sidelined the amendment in a vote late Wednesday night.
The politics of pot
Another Republican, Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, pleaded with the committee in person to approve it, but for a different reason.
Whereas Harris sponsored the measure confident that the research would prove marijuana is bad, Griffith has become convinced that there are limited circumstances in which marijuana has medical benefits for patients.
“We let doctors use heroin derivatives, barbiturates and all kinds of nasty stuff that I wouldn’t want people to use recreationally. Why not study marijuana?” Griffith, still smarting from the unraveling of the amendment, said in an interview.
“Andy Harris doesn’t think the research will show anything positive, but I do, and both of us feel willing to take the risk, do the research, and let us use evidence to make decisions,” he said. “This amendment would have answered the question one way or the other. I think it would have shown it is a valuable medical substance, but now we don’t have the evidence.”
Why the measure failed remains unclear.
To allow for federal research of marijuana, the amendment would have created a new designation for the substance. Marijuana is currently in a class of Schedule 1 drugs designated as the most dangerous, alongside heroin and LSD, and considered more addictive by the federal government than even cocaine.
The amendment, also sponsored by Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Sam Farr of California, would have created a new subclassification within Schedule 1 dubbed “Schedule 1R” for research.
The amendment also made clear that if federal research found that the Schedule 1 designation no longer seemed appropriate that “marijuana could then be rescheduled further after this research is completed.”
Both Griffith and an aide for Harris pointed to the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over national drug laws, as interfering with the proposal at the last minute Wednesday. A spokeswoman said the committee, led by another Virginia Republican, Robert Goodlatte, had no comment.
The effort put advocates for marijuana legalization in the odd position of having to praise Harris, who had become a nemesis of the cause.
“There are lawmakers who say they oppose marijuana reform because the research hasn’t been done yet, and the reality is the research hasn’t been done yet because there have been obstacles deliberately put in place,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the pro-marijuana Drug Policy Alliance.
“To Mr. Harris’s credit, he thinks there are benefits to researching marijuana, whether you support it or not,” Collins said. “I think it points to the fact that people are realizing that blanket opposition, using the old reefer-madness arguments, don’t apply any more.”
Indeed, even opponents of legalization said research seemed like a logical step and a path forward that even they could support.
“I think that’s great, anything that removes the barriers and promotes honest-to-goodness research is welcomed,” said Sue Rusche, head of National Families in Action, a drug-prevention organization that has been around since the 1980s’ “Just Say No” campaign.
Rusche’s group, based in Atlanta, has fought unsuccessfully to keep Georgia from allowing sales of cannabinoid oils for treatment for a range of ailments.
“Right now we really don’t know what you’re getting. What we need is research to show us what level of CBD and THC should be given and what’s safe.”