Pubdate: Fri, 18 Jul 2003
Source: The Week Online with DRCNet (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor


Democrats Also on Attack Against Drug Czar, Drug War in General

A series of recent votes on Capitol Hill suggest that the medical
marijuana issue is causing fissures in what is becoming an
increasingly shaky consensus in support of harsh anti-drug measures in
Congress. While none of the votes resulted in victories for drug
reformers, they appear to signal a growing acceptance of medical
marijuana in Congress and the emergence of a partisan divide on drug
policy, at least at the national political level.

In the last two weeks, hearings on the nomination of Karen Tandy as
administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the
reauthorization of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP,
the drug czar's office), and the Barr Amendment barring Washington,
DC, from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana program have
provided the opportunity for critics of the Bush administration's
hard-line drug policies to step up and fight back. The result has been
criticism of the drug war the likes of which has never been heard on
the Hill.

On Tuesday in the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Sam Farr
introduced an amendment to the Barr Amendment that would have allowed
medical marijuana laws to be enacted in the District. The amendment
would have allowed the city to use municipal instead of federal funds
to implement a medical marijuana program.

While that amendment failed on 35-16 vote, the number of yes votes was
the highest yet, and while every Republican voted against the measure,
roughly 80% of committee Democrats voted for it. Of Democrats voting
no, all but one were from the South. And Farr requested a roll call
vote, thus putting the representatives on the record as being for or
against medical marijuana in the District.

The debate also saw heated words from Democrats, including ranking
Appropriations Committee member Rep. David Obey (D-WI), who lashed out
at the GOP. "Nothing makes me more angry than this issue," he said.
"When I decide what I want on the way out, or what a family member
needs on the way out," he continued, "It's none of your damn
business!" he shouted, pointing directly at Republicans on the committee.

Last Wednesday, the action was in the House Judiciary Committee, which
was considering the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 2003. Unlike previous
years, committee Democrats did not merely rubberstamp the bill, but
used the hearings as an opportunity to attack the Bush administration
not only on its medical marijuana policy, but also on the drug war in

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) offered two amendments, one that would have
barred the drug czar from intervening in state elections or
initiatives related to medical marijuana and one that would have
barred the drug czar from approving the budget of any agency that used
its funds to arrest medical marijuana patients.

While both amendments failed, all Democrats present voted for the

There was no roll call vote on the former.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) went even further.

She introduced an amendment that would have killed the entire ONDCP
reauthorization bill. The drug czar's office is "wasteful,
ineffective, and unworthy," Waters said, and the bill is "not worth
the paper it is printed on." Surprisingly, 10 of 11 Democrats present
voted for the Waters amendment.

It failed in the face of solid Republican opposition, but egged on by
Waters, other Democrats went on the attack.

The war on drugs is a "dismal failure," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC),
adding that there is nothing he finds more embarrassing than the
federal government's drug policy.

Reps. Nadler and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) also ripped the war on
drugs -- "we are falling on our own sword," said Jackson-Lee -- while
ranking minority member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) criticized the huge
and growing number of prisoners filling US jails with nonviolent drug

In all, committee Democrats offered up nine anti-drug war amendments,
all of which failed on near party line votes.

And that same week, Karen Tandy, the Bush administration's nominee to
head the DEA, ran into unprecedented opposition in the Senate
Judiciary Committee. While the committee approved her nomination on a
voice vote, some Senate Democrats harshly criticized both Tandy and
the Bush administration's persecution of medical marijuana patients
and providers. Tandy had provided written answers to earlier
questions, but her position on DEA raids against medical marijuana
remained steadfast.

"If I am confirmed as administrator of the DEA, it will be my duty to
see to the uniform enforcement of federal law," Tandy wrote. "I do not
believe it would be consistent with that duty for me to support a
moratorium on enforcement of this law, or any law, in selected areas
of the country." Besides, she wrote, while THC may have some medicinal
value when processed into Marinol, "marijuana itself, however, has not
been shown to have medical benefits."

Tandy might want to take a look at the Institute of Medicine report on
the medical uses of marijuana commissioned by former drug czar Gen.
Barry McCaffrey, fumed Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who also questioned
whether the DEA should "continue to focus its limited resources on the
question of medical marijuana." Saying Tandy "didn't back off an inch"
in the face of concerns about the medical marijuana raids, Durbin
pointedly cast a no vote against her nomination. Senators Dianne
Feinstein (D-CA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) voted to approve Tandy's
nomination, but not before heaping additional complaints on her. Tandy
"doesn't seem amenable to listening" to popular concerns about the
raids, Feinstein grumbled.

Rescheduling marijuana might be necessary, she suggested.

Taken together, the clashes on Capitol Hill over drug policy in
general and medical marijuana in particular in the last two weeks
demonstrate both an increasing sympathy for medical marijuana, at
least among Democrats, and the beginnings of a partisan divide over
drug policy. "That's definitely the case. We've seen the Democrats
becoming very critical and outspoken," said Bill Piper of the Drug
Policy Alliance's ( Washington office. "They
are attacking the DEA raids, they are trying to stop the drug czar
from campaigning against initiatives. At the Tandy nomination, we saw
for the first time direct criticism directed at the DEA nominee over
these raids.

And they are attacking the drug war in general."

"The Democrats, at least, are finally confronting reality," said Steve
Fox, director of governmental relations for the Marijuana Policy
Project ( "They are finding that
medical marijuana is not only real, but popular, and the
justifications for opposing it are beginning to sound ridiculous. The
Republicans haven't figured this out yet. Not enough of them know
about how Bob Barr was defeated." (Barr, one of the most rabid drug
warriors in Congress, lost in the Republican primary last year, at
least in part because he was targeted by medical marijuana advocates
and the Libertarian Party for his drug war views 
"Hopefully next year we'll be able to play a larger role in the
elections and make these people realize there is a price to pay for
opposing medical marijuana."

Still, Fox is not convinced that medical marijuana is the issue that
will lead to the unraveling of the war on drugs. "It is clear that the
Bush administration is overreaching on the medical marijuana issue,
and this is showing people how foolish our drug policies are. It is
also raising issues of priorities, fiscal responsibility, and
compassion -- why are we wasting our time and money on this? The same
arguments you can make about medical marijuana, you can make about
other drug policies," he said. "But on the other hand, while medical
marijuana is a drug reform issue, it is also an issue that is outside
of drug reform.

It is basically a health and privacy issue -- should the federal
government be telling patients and doctors what to do? You don't have
to be a supporter of drug reform to support medical marijuana, and it
remains to be seen if support for that will bleed over into other
areas of drug policy.

The Republicans accuse us of using medical marijuana as a wedge issue
for legalization, but that's not true. Anyone in his right mind would
support it."

Nor is he certain that a partisan divide on drug policy will be etched
in stone. "I don't see this as a divide that will last forever or one
that holds true once you get to the state and local level," he said.
"In states where we've been active, we had a GOP-controlled House in
Vermont and a Republican governor in Maryland supporting medical
marijuana, and similar support in other states.

Congress is just a crazy place," Fox said. And many Republicans are
voting no reflexively, he added. "For the most part, these are party
line votes, and it takes a lot to move someone to the other side. They
have to have a reason to break party discipline, and we haven't given
them one yet. Even now, most politicians think the support for medical
marijuana is wide but not deep. Until we can prove otherwise, there is
no reason for them to chance being seen as soft on drugs."

MPP is working on that, Fox said. "Next year, we'll do a massive voter
education effort to help a moderate Republican lose a race. It would
take the loss of just one person, say Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-WA), to
change the entire dynamic.

We have a real strong desire to educate members of her district."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake