It has been a momentous week, with the resignation (read: "firing") of a cabinet secretary, a presidential speech on America's foreign and military policy and the announcement of a timetable to bring home the remaining troops in Afghanistan. Plus all the usual Washington squabbling. But one story risks being buried among all this other newsworthy stuff, and that is the vote which happened late last night in the House of Representatives. Because, with a healthy bipartisan majority, they just voted to end the war on medical marijuana forever. If the Senate follows their lead, this could be one of the biggest turning points in ending the federal War On Weed altogether. In other words, it is a momentous event.
The "Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment" was sponsored by Republican Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Sam Farr, both from California -- the first state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, almost two decades ago. It uses the traditional congressional "power of the purse" to ban the Justice Department from spending any money on arrests, raids and prosecutions of medical marijuana providers and patients that comply with their states' medical marijuana laws. That's the entire Justice Department, including federal attorneys, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
While the Obama administration began with a promise not to prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers, the reality on the ground has been far different. U.S. Attorneys in some states have used an extremely heavy hand in bringing such prosecutions to court, no matter what the head office was saying (this article, written before the amendment passed, lists a few of these). The head of the D.E.A. has (to put it politely) not exactly jumped on board with laying off medical marijuana providers. Action by Congress, in this case, was necessary to refocus the entire Justice Department away from the drug-warrior mindset when it came to providing medicine to ill patients.
Last night, to the great surprise of even marijuana reform activists, the House voted 219-189 to yank all funding for targeting medical marijuana in states where it is legal (in state law -- it still remains illegal under federal law, medicinal or not). A whopping 49 Republicans joined 170 Democrats in voting "yea." That's about as bipartisan as it gets, these days. It also raises hopes that its chances in the Senate could be pretty good. House Republicans, by standing behind the idea, have given political cover to Republican senators to vote for the measure, to put this another way. It's barely even a contentious idea politically any more, as surveys show public support is now at a sky-high 85 percent.
Rohrabacher even invoked a sacred name (for Republicans), showing how to put a conservative spin on the issue: "The heart and soul of the Republican party is that pro-freedom, individual philosophy that Reagan talked about. I think that what we've got now and what we have here in the Republican vote last night were people who took a lot of those words and the philosophy of Ronald Reagan to heart." Those are strong words indeed (again, for Republicans).
If the Senate follows the House's lead, this will be the beginning of the end of the federal legal battle against medical marijuana -- which is now legal at the state level in close to half of the states. Success is by no means guaranteed, however. The amendment has been attached to a budget bill, and there is no guarantee that any budget bills will make it to the president's desk this year (they may be rolled into some giant omnibus bill, or Congress may punt until after the election or even next year). The Senate may not even take up the amendment at any point. There are all sorts of ways it could be derailed, in fact.
Even if it does survive in a bill Obama can sign, it is still only the first step. The ultimate goal, in this particular case, is "rescheduling" marijuana so we can end the federal legal fiction that it has no accepted medicinal value. Attorney General Eric Holder can do so with his signature, but he has indicated that he'd like Congress to buy into the idea as well. Last night's vote means that this could indeed happen in the near future. In addition to the other marijuana reforms either Holder or Congress has approved (sentencing reforms, allowing recreational legalization in two states to proceed, hemp production, allowing medical research on marijuana, etc.), we are now standing on the brink of ending the "reefer madness" altogether. No, not the "madness" of the "reefer fiend" so famously propagandized in the movie of the same name, but rather the madness of treating marijuana more harshly than drugs like methamphetamine. It is, indeed, madness to believe that weed is more harmful to society than crystal meth. And that is the madness that could be about to end.
Even if the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment doesn't survive the budgeting process, the vote itself was a powerful statement: spending money persecuting medical marijuana patients and providers is a gigantic waste and will no longer be allowed. This, from the Republican-led House, no less. The politics of marijuana reform are shifting fast, and politicians from both parties better take note. So while President Obama may have pushed this off the front pages with his foreign policy speech, accepting Shinseki's resignation or his announcement of the end of the Afghanistan War; we felt the most important story of the week is one that didn't make many front pages: the beginning of the end of the federal government's reefer madness.
President Obama was certainly in the news this week, as just mentioned. He announced the Afghanistan drawdown schedule, he gave a major foreign and military policy speech, he finally fired (oh, excuse me, "accepted the resignation of") Veterans Administration head Eric Shinseki, he held a conference on concussions in sports and he teased the media with an upcoming announcement on new Environmental Protection Agency rules on pollution and greenhouse gases. All in all, a pretty productive week, politically. But this week he only earned an Honorable Mention for all his fervent activity.
Because the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was none other than Representative Sam Farr. Farr represents a coastal district in Central California which includes the seaside town of Santa Cruz. So it's not like he's going to suffer politically for championing the end to federal persecution of medical marijuana. I'd have to check a map, but I believe that the pivotal Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Raich (originally Ashcroft v. Raich) began with a raid of a medical marijuana cooperative in Farr's district (or, perhaps, "just north of his district"). But Farr hasn't been as prominent in the marijuana reform movement as other Democrats (such as Jared Polis of Colorado, to name just one), at least not up until now.
But by cosponsoring Rohrabacher's amendment, Farr took the lead in this instance. Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project praised Farr's efforts, after the vote:
Representative Farr gave an impassioned floor speech, and lobbied his colleagues on the House floor leading up to the vote. His staff was also incredibly helpful in narrowing down the list of members I needed to target.
If the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment becomes law, this will be a stunning achievement. It will be pivotal in redirecting the federal government's entire drug policy, in fact. For leading the effort on the Democratic side, for rounding up 170 Democratic votes, for working across the aisle on an important issue (and by doing so, proving that it should now be seen as a non-partisan issue), for doing what his constituents want him to do in Washington and for possibly ending the federal reefer madness altogether, Sam Farr is this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.
Well done, Sam! Well done indeed.
[Congratulate Representative Sam Farr on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
This one's pretty obvious.
Eric Shinseki has served his country in many ways. He left part of his foot on the battlefield in Vietnam wearing the uniform of the United States. He was the highest-ranking Japanese-American ever in the military. He told the truth when asked about how many troops he thought would be necessary in Iraq (much to the dismay of Donald Rumsfeld). And he took on a tough job in the Obama cabinet.
But, while he did make a lot of improvements at the Veterans Administration, he fell far short on one major area. The institutional problems at the Veterans Administration go back decades (if not centuries) -- America just doesn't have all that great a record when it comes to taking care of veterans (with the exception of World War II vets, perhaps). But that doesn't excuse Shinseki. He was at the helm for five years, and in all that time didn't realize that the data on wait times was being gamed far and wide by lower-level administrators in local hospitals. This is an enormous failing, whether you hold Shinseki personally responsible or not.
When the interim report was released this Wednesday, it was clear that Shinseki had to go. Over 100 members of Congress -- including many Democrats -- called on him to step down. The media was more split, although I have to admit that I joined in the chorus calling for Shinseki to go after the report was released. Many veterans groups stood behind Shinseki all week, but in the end it wasn't enough.
Some might argue that Shinseki's not exactly a Democratic politician, but in our eyes serving in the cabinet of a Democratic president is close enough. Which is why we're awarding him the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week on his way out the door.
[Eric Shinseki is now a private citizen, and our policy is not to provide contact information for people out of the world of politics.]
Volume 306 (5/30/14)
We've got quite the mixed bunch this week, since we spent most of the rest of the column on a single subject. Oh, and for every blogger out there (which definitely includes me) who has ever made a mistake or typo they later had to go back and sheepishly correct, here's the cover of the venerable New York Times from earlier this week. Note that sub-heading on the Obama speech story: "Tells West Point Cadets That Critics Misread His Cautious Reponse to World Crises." Reponse? Heh. Even the high and mighty slip up, on occasion!
OK, sorry, that was juvenile. Ahem. Getting back to the subject at hand... well, we seem to have quite a few subjects at hand this week. A lot happened in the political world, including a whole lot of stories we didn't even have room for, so it's kind of a hit-or-miss week for the talking points.
End the madness
To make this point, all you need to do is compare marijuana (listed under Schedule I -- the most dangerous drugs around) with all the drugs which are considered less harmful (those on Schedule II). It's a pretty easy point to make.
"I fully support the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which will zero out the budget for the Justice Department to go after medical marijuana users and providers in states which have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. We need to end the 'reefer madness' in the federal government. Because it is indeed madness to put sick people and their medical providers in jail for five or ten years when their own state allows such medical treatment. With medical marijuana legal in over 20 states, it is madness for the federal government to list marijuana as having, and I quote from the Schedule I definition: 'no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.' The federal war on medical marijuana is nothing but sheer madness, folks. Listing marijuana as more dangerous than cocaine? Madness! Listing it as more dangerous than crystal meth? Madness! Listing it as more dangerous than opium, Dexedrine, PCP and barbiturates? Utter and complete madness, nothing less. Which is why I strongly support Rohrabacher-Farr, and hope it passes the Senate and arrives on President Obama's desk. Because we simply must stop this reefer madness in the federal government, once and for all."
Maybe next year, huh?
This one is almost too funny for words.
"I see that even though Republicans have now had three or four years to come up with their own bill to replace Obamacare, the House is punting on the issue once again. The House leadership just announced that they will be postponing a floor vote on the non-existent Obamacare Republican replacement plan. It seems that, and I quote from the Washington Post article announcing this decision, 'the delay will give them more time to work on the bill and weigh the consequences of putting a detailed policy before the voters in the fall.' That's really amusing, isn't it? They don't want the voters to know what they're planning. They're afraid it will not be as popular as Obamacare, to put it another way. They need more time -- that's the really funny part! They've had years and years now, and they are still no closer to replacing Obamacare with some pie-in-the-sky pure conservative answer because such an answer does not exist. Voters, please take note."
Championing incestuous fathers' parental rights
I wrote recently about how Democrats should frame this issue, in the strongest terms possible. Representative Alan Grayson this week tried to get a change to an anti-abortion provision in an appropriations bill. Republicans kept the exceptions for rape and the life of the mother intact, but somehow dropped the exception for incest. While Grayson's bill failed, he did a good job of expressing his outrage. From his floor speech:
Laws have consequences. The scenario we're describing here is one where a female prisoner is the victim of incest. If this law passes as currently written, that female prisoner will be forced to carry to term the child of an incestuous relationship. I regard this as absolutely indefensible.
Tax cuts pay for themselves?
The hypocrisy is obvious on this one.
"Whenever Democrats try to get federal money for a deserving cause -- like relief funds for natural disasters, for instance -- Republicans say 'it's got to be paid for elsewhere.' Whenever any Democratic budget proposal is made, Republicans respond by saying the money has to be cut from other programs. But this budget-cutting purity gets thrown right out the window when Republicans push for more tax breaks. The House Ways and Means Committee just pushed $304 billion in tax breaks (over ten years), after voting for $310 billion in other loopholes last month. They didn't pay for a dime of it. They just tacked the entire thing onto the budget deficit. Once again, Republicans show that they only posture about being fiscally responsible -- when the subject is relief money for hurricane victims, say -- but they could not care less about busting the budget when it comes to tax breaks for their donors. The hypocrisy is astounding. Where are all those Tea Partiers, hollering to the skies about balanced budgets, one wonders."
Latino vote landslide?
House Republicans seem absolutely determined to drive the Democratic share of the Latino vote to new heights, it seems.
"House Republicans refuse to even hold a vote on the Senate immigration reform bill, because they are terrified that it will pass. The Republicans cannot agree on putting their own immigration reform bill together, either. The window is fast closing politically for action on immigration reform this year, except when they rush through a vote on bills like the one Steve King just got passed, which focus 100 percent on the enforcement side of things. At the same time, they block votes against allowing citizenship for immigrants who serve America in the armed forces. It's almost as if the Republican Party is trying to see how high the Latino vote percentage can go against them. Not unlike their non-existent Obamacare replacement plan, the non-existent House Republican immigration reform bill means Democrats are going to get an even-bigger landslide among Latino voters for the foreseeable future. Anyone want to bet how high it'll be in the 2016 presidential election? Maybe 80 percent this time? Or 85 percent? How many states will that guarantee go to the Democrats in the Electoral College, do you think?"
The Washington football team (we prefer to now call them the "Washington Racial Slurs") decided that social media was the way to go in their fight with the likes of Harry Reid. Whoops.
"The football team in our nation's capital refuses to change their team name, even though it is quite obviously racially offensive. Harry Reid and 49 other Democratic senators wrote the team a letter urging them to change the name. The team responded on Twitter, in the hopes that legions of fans would inundate Harry Reid's Twitter feed. Instead, what they got was legions of people informing them that their team name is no longer acceptable. I encourage the entire Twitterverse to join in this pile-on, using either @Redskins or the hashtag #RedskinsPride, so they'll notice."
Have a drink before you vote!
This one is rather amusing, especially for those Americans who have never experienced what "dry counties" and alcohol "blue laws" are like in some places.
"I see that South Carolina is about to lift their ban on alcohol sales on election day. By doing so, they'll join the rest of the country where it is legal to toss down a few stiff ones before exercising their citizen's franchise. Prohibition is over, and the days of getting lots of voters drunk in ballot-stuffing schemes are long gone. So voters in South Carolina will soon be able to use alcohol on election day as they see fit -- whether that means getting tipsy enough to bring yourself to vote for one guy over another, or whether it means popping open some bubbly to celebrate when your candidate wins. As W. C. Fields famously once said: 'Everybody's got to believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink.' A fitting toast for election day in South Carolina!"
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