Two new bills introduced Monday by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) aim to help medical marijuana patients defend themselves in court and open up new avenues of scientific research into the drug by forcing the federal government to recognize marijuana's potential for medical value.
H.R. 689, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, is not new: Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced it in previous sessions, but as he's now retired Blumenauer has become chief sponsor, proposing to reclassify marijuana in the Schedule of Controlled Substances and order the federal government to abide by state laws regarding the drug. The second bill is H.R. 710, which would "provide an affirmative defense for the medical use of marijuana in accordance with the laws of the various States."
"The most prominent portions of the bill would lead to marijuana being rescheduled, as noted in the bill it would be rescheduled to a schedule other than Schedule I or Schedule II," Steve Fox, national political director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), told Raw Story. "It would also ensure nothing in the Controlled Substances Act and the Federal Food Drug and Costmetic Act prevented any state from having medical marijuana laws and individuals would be able to comply with those state laws without running afoul of the federal government."
Speaking at a Washington, D.C. press conference put on Monday by Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Blumenauer blasted marijuana prohibition as being "frozen in time since 1970," but that's all changing. "I think the most profound changes have taken place in the arena of medical marijuana, and it started in California in 1996, where voters decided that the federal policy of marijuana as Schedule I with no therapeutic benefit is just flat out wrong," he said. "And since that time, with that leadership... now 19 jurisdictions have decided that they're going to allow their citizens to have access to medical marijuana. Two-thirds of those approvals took place with a vote of the people."
Moving the government's classification of marijuana to from Schedule I to Schedule III or lower would "in theory make it easier for FDA approved clinical trials to take place" to study marijuana-based drugs," Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Raw Story. "There would also, in theory, be private manufacturers that would be allowed to produce cannabis to likely then be used in medical trials. It's also possible that... there would be the option for physicians to legally prescribe cannabis as a medicine as opposed to now, where they issue a written or oral recommendation."
That's one of the persistent problems medical marijuana patients, producers and even major drug companies have faced in trying to study marijuana: the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has a legal monopoly on the substance, and it is only produced at one government-funded research center at the University of Mississippi. Even the American Medical Association has taken issue with this logjam, and its Council on Science and Public Health voted in 2009 (PDF) to recommend the feds move marijuana to a less restrictive classification to enable research on potential clinical applications.
Similarly, Blumenauer pointed out in prepared remarks that NIDA's mission is to "lead the nation in bringing the power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction," yet "many researchers have found it difficult to obtain marijuana for research into the potential therapeutic or medicinal effects of marijuana."
"[These bills] would mean that the federal government would acknowledge that marijuana has medical efficacy," ASA spokesperson Chris Hermes told Raw Story. "It would probably lessen the enforcement that's occurred around medical marijuana in various states over the past many years with the Obama administration and the Bush administration, both. It would also potentially mean that patients would be able to assert a medical necessity defense in court."
"The flip-side of this is whether cannabis belongs in the Controlled Substances Act whatsoever," Armentano said. "Cocaine is a Schedule II drug. Methamphetamine is a Schedule II drug. I don't believe that most marijuana law reformers think that cannabis should be treated and regulated like cocaine and amphetamine. Still, this discussion is a good starting point to have federal law finally begin to in some way better reflect the scientific reality regarding the therapeutic utility of cannabis, and the practical reality of hundreds of thousands of patients are already using cannabis."
Although H.R. 689 has 12 co-sponsors, including Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), it is virtually doomed to die in committee due to House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) opposition to any form of liberalization on marijuana -- in spite of his well-known fondness for alcohol and tobacco, which the medical journal Lancet ranks as much more harmful to users and society than marijuana.
Despite appearing doomed to die in committee, as the bills has in prior Congresses, Hermes said he's still hopeful. "There's something to say for the fact that the vast majority of the public supports medical marijuana, which means that Congress is the one that needs to catch up on this issue... We're not going to look at the odds and throw our hands up. We're going to go and fight that much harder to try and get this bill passed."
This video was published to YouTube on Feb. 25, 2013.