The House of Representatives has defeated a measure that would have barred drug officials from enforcing federal anti-marijuana laws. The federal government can prosecute people who use marijuana for medical reasons in states that allowing medical use of the drug.
Lawmakers voted down the amendment, which would have allowed states with medical marijuana laws to regulate the practice without federal interference.
Nine states -- California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Nevada -- have laws allowing patients to legally use marijuana if it is recommended and supervised by a physician. California officials have clashed with federal drug enforcement agencies in recent years over federal raids of marijuana growing and distribution operations that were operating with a state license.
Federal officials have said that national drug laws override states laws or referenda supporting medical marijuana and that the raids are an important part of national drug control strategy.
The amendment had limited bipartisan support among lawmakers but was strongly opposed by the White House and several anti-drug groups.
"The legalization of medical marijuana is simply the first step in a scheme to overturn all the substance abuse laws that we work hard to enforce today," says Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.)
Some patients use marijuana for its ability to relieve a variety of symptoms, including pain and nausea associated with chemotherapy, muscle spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis, and extreme weight loss caused by AIDS.
A report from the Institute of Medicine in 1999 says marijuana holds promise for treating some symptoms but that smoking is an unreliable and dangerous form of drug delivery.
Supporters in the House say state medical marijuana laws have allowed doctors and patients to use the drug more responsibly. "Because of these state laws, thousands of patients are able to alleviate their pain and suffering without fear of arrest by state or local authorities," says Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.)
The House rejected a similar measure last year. But a handful of federal courts have sided with states asking in effect to be exempt from federal marijuana laws when it comes to medical use.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a case challenging the federal government's enforcement of anti-marijuana laws in states with medical legalization. The court is expected to hear the case in November or December, with a decision following in spring or summer of 2005.
Lawmakers' action on the medical marijuana question is "disheartening," especially for Californians, who have seen the most federal marijuana raids, says Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a group advocating for looser drug laws.
But [medical marijuana supporters] have a fair reason to be optimistic that the Supreme Court may rule in their favor in this case," he tells WebMD.
Arthur T. Dean, chairman of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, tells WebMD that his group lobbied hard against the House amendment and would also contribute briefs in the upcoming Supreme Court case. The group maintains that medical marijuana legalization sends mixed messages to American children and teens about the risks of drug use.
"We believe that if the justices fully understand the impact from a health perspective that smoked marijuana has, we're hopeful that they'll rule on the side of kids," Dean says.