AMERICANS WANT MEDICAL MARIJUANA
When there is a big gap between the views of ordinary Americans on a public issue and the voting record of their elected representatives in Congress, something is wrong. In the current debate over the use of marijuana for medical purposes, Americans and their representatives seem to be living on different planets.
Poll after poll shows Americans, by a huge majority, want their doctors, not lawmakers, to decide whether or not marijuana should be used as a medicine. Today, however, federal laws prohibit physicians from prescribing marijuana for pain relief even where state and local laws say it is OK to do so. This has not always been the case.
"For most of American history, growing and using marijuana was legal under both federal law and the laws of individual states," according to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Congress.
The report goes on to say, "From 1850 to the early 1940s cannabis was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia as a recognized medicinal. [But] its decline in medicine was hastened by the development of aspirin, morphine, and other opium-derived drugs, all of which helped to replace marijuana in the treatment of pain."
In a 1999 Gallup poll, 73 percent of Americans said they would vote for making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering. Similar polls in 2003 and 2005 found 75 percent and 78 percent support, respectively.
Apparently members of Congress don't read the polls these days, nor do they care much about state laws. In 12 states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington -- laws already give doctors the power to decide whether to use marijuana to treat patients in pain.
In the U.S. House of Representatives, on May 4, 2005, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced H.R. 2087, a bill "to provide for the medical use of marijuana in accordance with the laws of the various states," and to prohibit the federal government from stopping "an individual from obtaining and using marijuana from a prescription or recommendation by a physician for medical use." It remains stuck in the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Since a federal bill allowing states to regulate the medical use of marijuana can't make it to the House floor for an up or down vote, an alternative strategy is to attach a medical marijuana amendment to a spending bill that will reach the House floor. On June 15, 2005, Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, D-N.Y., did just that and offered Amendment 272 to H.R. 2862. The amendment would have prohibited federal agencies from preventing the implementation of state laws that authorize the use of medical marijuana. It was rejected on a 264-to-161 vote.
In other words, while 78 percent of Americans favor letting doctors and states decide this issue, only 38 percent of House members favored a law supporting that policy. Nationally, a whopping 40 percent medical marijuana gap separates what the American people want and what their hard-of-hearing elected representatives deliver.
The gap is even larger in Virginia, where eight of the 11 House members from Virginia voted against Amendment 272 and the will of three out of four Americans. Assuming the national polls fairly reflect the opinions of Virginia voters, eight members from Virginia ought to have supported the amendment instead of only three. Roanoke area Reps. Virgil Goode and Bob Goodlatte, both Republicans, voted against the amendment while Rick Boucher, a Democrat, voted for it.
American democracy calls on lawmakers to be responsive to the common sense wisdom of ordinary citizens. Elected officials from Virginia need to start listening to the people who want their physicians, not politicians, to decide whether marijuana should be used to ease suffering in sick patients. If Virginia's current members of Congress don't improve their hearing, voters might consider replacing them in November with people who have better listening skills.