New lobbying group presses for medical marijuana use

On the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision allowing the federal government to overrule state medical-marijuana laws, a new lobbying group is trying to persuade some of the House’s most conservative members to protect the terminally ill’s right to use the drug.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a nonprofit group funded by patients, doctors and researchers who support exploring marijuana’s therapeutic potential, opened its Washington office last month and completed its first grassroots lobbying visits yesterday.

ASA’s two lobbyists and seven members, dubbed “citizen experts,” met Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), who will offer his traditional medical-marijuana amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill when it hits the floor next week, and 20 more House members, most from the California delegation. California permits cannabis use for medical reasons, but the Supreme Court ruled last year in Gonzales v. Raich that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) could legally raid the supply of state-sanctioned users.

“Eventually we do see legislation being put forth” to end the federal ban on marijuana research, said ASA’s government-affairs director, Caren Woodson, “but the first thing we need to happen is that patients and doctors in states with laws stop being harassed by DEA agents.” Hinchey’s amendment, co-sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), would bar Justice from spending federal money on raiding stashes in California and nine other states with legalization laws.

Along with Woodson, a former lobbyist for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, ASA sent a past president of the American Association of Psychiatric Administrators and Garry Silva, a nerve-damaged California man whose home was raided by the DEA in March, to meet with lawmakers. ASA’s grassroots team met with senior aides to Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), among others.

Though the politically incendiary debate over medical marijuana has made strange bedfellows out of the left-leaning Hinchey and the conservative Rohrabacher, their amendment faces long odds on the House floor. For Woodson, however, the week has been a golden opportunity to position ASA as a new player in the debate dominated by often-stereotyped players like NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and the George Soros-funded Marijuana Policy Project.

“There is a lot of back-and-forth about medical marijuana being a stalking horse for something greater, but what ASA is going to be able to provide is … a fresh perspective,” Woodson said. “We don’t have any mission or scope beyond medicine.”

Hinchey and Rohrabacher already have taken the fight for therapeutic cannabis to the Bush administration. Along with 22 other House members, they wrote to new Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Andrew von Eschenbach in April protesting an agency release that said no scientific evidence exists to prove marijuana’s medical value.