Bill Piper is the director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Over the weekend Congress passed the “cromnibus,” an end of year federal spending bill designed to fund most of the government through 2015. The bill contains the bipartisan Rohrabacher-Farr medical marijuana amendment prohibiting the Justice Department from spending any money to undermine state medical marijuana laws.
This is a huge victory — one that has taken 13 years to win. For the first time, Congress is cutting off funding to federal medical marijuana raids and saying no one should be arrested for complying with their state’s medical marijuana law.
The amendment was first offered by Congressman Maurice Hinchey in 2003. At the time it received 152 yes votes — far short of the 218 votes needed to win, but more than anyone expected. It was offered on the floor many more times over the years.
A lot of organizations spent more than a decade building support for the amendment – Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, NORML, LEAP and others.
It was hard work.
I remember when Steve Fox (then at Marijuana Policy Project) and I took Montel Williams, a well-known talk show host and medical marijuana patient, in to ask a member of Congress to support medical marijuana. The representative wouldn’t even look at Steve or me — just talked to Montel, repeatedly telling him he had been misled on medical marijuana and that marijuana reform advocates are liars.
Now that congressperson is one of our closest allies, not just on medical marijuana but legalization too. A lot of people who basically slammed their doors in our faces a decade ago are now our allies.
Last May, 219 members of the U.S. House voted for the medical marijuana amendment, which was sponsored this year by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Democratic Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA), and ten other members of Congress. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a similar amendment in the Senate but a vote by the Senate on the amendment was never held.
The House amendment made it into the final appropriations bill, marking the first time Congress has ever cut off funding to marijuana enforcement.
Change almost never happens overnight. And it rarely happens by accident.
Year after year people wrote or called their members of Congress in support of medical marijuana. I know some people had doubts as to whether contacting their elected officials would matter. Now that the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment has passed it is clear that contacting members of Congress matters.
Many opponents became supporters because of pressure from their constituents.
There is still a lot more work ahead. This spending amendment is a good first step, but ultimately federal law needs to change to allow states to set their own marijuana policy without federal interference.
I like to say that members of Congress are good at jumping in front of parades, but first you have to build that parade.
Members of Congress are beginning to do the right thing; we need to hold them accountable and make sure they push reform further.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.