There are reasons to be optimistic about a vote in Congress that didn’t go our way.
Last night the U.S. House voted down a bipartisan amendment by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) that would have allowed Veterans Administration (VA) doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients.
The House rejected a similar amendment last year. It received 195 votes (222 voted against it). Last night, 210 members of Congress voted for it, and only 213 voted against it.
That’s a 15-vote pick up — and in a Congress far more conservative than last year.
Two votes would have made a big difference. One Democrat voted no when he meant to vote yes. One Republican voted no because the amendment didn’t go far enough.
Despite the setback on the veterans amendment last year, we went on to win FIVE other marijuana votes in 2014. Those votes were more focused on letting states set their own marijuana policy.
The fact that this year’s amendment picked up 15 votes in just one year means support for medical marijuana is increasingly rapidly in Congress. It also means we will most likely go on to win other amendments this year that are more focused on states’ rights.
The amendment was a complicated one that went beyond merely allowing states to set their own marijuana policy to allowing federal employees at the VA to discuss marijuana with their patients and recommend its use if medically necessary. Under the law of almost two dozens states a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana exempts a patient from local or state arrest.
While the Blumenauer/Heck amendment would have treated veterans like any other resident in a medical marijuana state, our opponents framed it as being about allowing federal employees to break the law or facilitate the breaking of law – even though it was clearly about free speech and the right of doctors to provide accurate information to their patients. In some cases opponents of medical marijuana outright lied – saying that it would allow federal doctors to distribute marijuana, allow marijuana use on federal property, etc.
Don’t get me wrong - this is a major loss for veterans. There’s no sugar-coating that. As a letter to Congress from a former VA physician pointed out, “Our men and women in uniform make incredible sacrifices for our country, and the least we could do is make every possible treatment option available to them when they come home.”
However, we see substantial momentum toward making change for veterans and medical marijuana patients, alike. We have a roadmap for bipartisan marijuana reform and will be pushing forward more aggressively, and on more fronts, than ever before.
Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.