Pubdate: Fri, 10 Jul 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Aaron C. Davis


Amendment Called for Federal Studies to Gauge Medical Benefits, Risks

Medical marijuana is now sold in nearly half of all states, and even 
one red state has legalized it for recreational use. Veterans of wars 
in Iraq and Afghanistan are clamoring for access to treat 
post-traumatic stress disorder. Loosening pot laws polls better in 
three swing states than any 2016 presidential candidate.

But House Republicans have so far declined to keep pace with shifting 
public opinion. They did so again late Wednesday, when a rare 
bipartisan pot proposal died a quiet death in the House that would 
have reclassified marijuana so that national laboratories could 
conduct "credible research on its safety and efficacy as a medical treatment."

The amendment to a bill scheduled for debate Thursday on the House 
floor would have encouraged the National Institutes of Health and the 
Drug Enforcement Administration to work together to allow studies of 
the benefits and risks of marijuana to treat cancer, epilepsy, 
glaucoma and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions.

The vote is the latest action to reflect national Republicans' 
uncertainty on how to address shifting public sentiment about 
marijuana use. Although the GOP has supported steps to allow state 
medical-marijuana programs to flourish, Republicans generally have 
not supported efforts to advance national policy on legalization.

When a Senate committee this year passed a measure to let doctors 
discuss marijuana with patients at Department of Veterans Affairs 
clinics, House Republicans shot it down. When the District legalized 
weed for personal use, a powerful House committee chairman threatened 
the city's mayor with jail time.

House Republicans have defended their opposition to pot. There is no 
evidence, they have said, that loosening marijuana laws would do 
anything but destroy the brains of the nation's adolescents, let 
alone offer benefits to veterans.

The lack of evidence, however, can be traced to congressional 
Republicans who have made it all but impossible for federal agencies 
to fund objective testing on the effects of marijuana use.

The amendment that died Wednesday was seen by some as a potential 
game-changer. With 23 states allowing medical marijuana - and a 
handful plus the District of Columbia having outright legalized it - 
some House Republicans (and Democrats, too) thought that it was 
finally time to allow more federal testing of marijuana.

For Republican opponents, the research could provide either evidence 
to continue holding the line or solid ground for the party to begin 
tiptoeing toward the mainstream.

Perhaps surprisingly was the House Republicans' most outspoken critic 
of legalization over the past two years who co-sponsored the measure.

Rep. Andy Harris (Md.), a doctor and author of a measure in Congress 
that has left legalization in the District in limbo, said more 
science was the way to go.

"We need science to clearly determine whether marijuana has medicinal 
benefits and, if so, what is the best way to gain those benefits," he 
said Wednesday before the House Rules Committee sidelined the 
amendment in a vote late Wednesday night.

Another Republican, Rep. H. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, pleaded with 
the committee in person to approve it, but for a different reason.

Whereas Harris sponsored the measure confident that the research 
would prove marijuana is bad, Griffith has become convinced that 
there are limited circumstances in which marijuana has medical 
benefits for patients.

"We let doctors use heroin derivatives, barbiturates and all kinds of 
nasty stuff that I wouldn't want people to use recreationally. Why 
not study marijuana?" Griffith, still smarting from the unraveling of 
the amendment, said in an interview.

"Andy Harris doesn't think the research will show anything positive, 
but I do, and both of us feel willing to take the risk, do the 
research, and let us use evidence to make decisions," he said. "This 
amendment would have answered the question one way or the other. I 
think it would have shown it is a valuable medical substance, but now 
we don't have the evidence."

Why the measure failed remains unclear.

To allow for federal research of marijuana, the amendment would have 
created a new designation for the substance. Marijuana is currently 
in a class of Schedule 1 drugs designated as the most dangerous, 
alongside heroin and LSD, and considered more addictive by the 
federal government than even cocaine.

The amendment, also sponsored by Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Oregon 
and Sam Farr of California, would have created a new 
sub-classification within Schedule 1 dubbed "Schedule 1R" for research.

The amendment also made clear that if federal research found that the 
Schedule 1 designation no longer seemed appropriate that "marijuana 
could then be rescheduled further after this research is completed."

Both Griffith and an aide for Harris pointed to the House Judiciary 
Committee, which has jurisdiction over national drug laws, as 
interfering with the proposal at the last minute Wednesday. A 
spokeswoman said the committee, led by another Virginia Republican, 
Robert W. Goodlatte, had no comment.

The effort put advocates for marijuana legalization in the odd 
position of having to praise Harris, who had become a nemesis of the cause.

"There are lawmakers who say they oppose marijuana reform because the 
research hasn't been done yet, and the reality is the research hasn't 
been done yet because there have been obstacles deliberately put in 
place," said Michael Collins, policy manager for the pro-marijuana 
Drug Policy Alliance.

"To Mr. Harris's credit, he thinks there are benefits to researching 
marijuana, whether you support it or not," Collins said. "I think it 
points to the fact that people are realizing that blanket opposition, 
using the old reefer-madness arguments, don't apply any more."

Indeed, even opponents of legalization said research seemed like a 
logical step and a path forward that even they could support.

"I think that's great, anything that removes the barriers and 
promotes honest-to-goodness research is welcomed," said Sue Rusche, 
head of National Families in Action, a drug-prevention organization 
that has been around since the "Just Say No" campaign of the 1980s.

Rusche's group, based in Atlanta, has fought unsuccessfully to keep 
Georgia from allowing sales of cannabinoid oils for treatment for a 
range of ailments.

"Right now we really don't know what you're getting. What we need is 
research to show us what level of CBD and THC should be given and what's safe."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom