On Friday, May 30, 2014, the House of Representatives voted to end the federal government’s prosecution of medical marijuana users. It was approved as an amendment that was attached to a Justice Department appropriations bill. The amendment, named the Hinchey-Rohrabacher Amendment after the bill’s sponsors, would disallow any federal funds to be used in prosecuting individuals complying with state medical marijuana laws. The bill is expected to reach the Senate floor within the coming weeks.
Recently, Americans for Safe Access, a patient advocacy group, has been running targeted ads against two members of the house who voted against the bill, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Rep. Deborah Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. On June 11, I spoke with Kris Hermes, ASA’s media specialist, to find out about ASA’s ad campaign and his perspective on the marijuana movement.
William Sumner: What is it that you hope to accomplish with your ad campaign?
Kris Hermes: It’s really several purposes. One is that it is an education campaign so the voters understand the voting record of their representatives. We think it’s important because they represent the opposition to an issue that is supported by the vast majority of Americans. For example, in representative Wasserman-Schultz’s district more than 80 percent support medical marijuana, yet she felt that it was important to continue to allow federal officials arrest individuals that are complying with state law. We want to try to bridge the gap between public opinion and the way congress votes with public education as well as calling out members of congress who are voting contrary to the constituents.
We hope to run additional ads in districts where members of congress who voted against the amendment are highlighted as well as those who voted for the house measure as an example of what kind of behavior to emulate. We are willing to produce and run ads at the request of our local membership provided that the funds are there.
Sumner: Does the ASA have an endgame or does your organization plan on evolving as the issue does?
Hermes: I think that anytime there is inconsistency between popular will and the way congress votes on an issue, it’s important to raise the stakes and educate the public. For many years we’ve had strong support, upwards of 80 percent in support for medical marijuana. Yet over the same period Congress has repeatedly failed to change what we consider to be an outdated policy. It appears the tide is turning. The endgame here is to change federal policy, whether it’s to tie the hands of the Justice Department so that they cannot engage in aggressive attacks in medical marijuana states or whether it’s to reclassify marijuana for medical use. Our goal is to change federal policy.
Sumner: What can the average citizen can do to support the ASA?
Hermes: One of the reasons congress is out of step with the American people is that there are not enough advocates beating down the door of their representative in order to express how much they support changing policy. One thing advocates can do is to contact members of congress and urge them to change policy. Specifically, at this moment, we need individual citizens to urge their senators to restrict Justice Department funds for enforcement in Medical Marijuana states. That issue will be coming to the floor of the senate in the next couple of weeks.
Sumner: What is the economic impact of medical marijuana?
Hermes: I don’t have good hard numbers, but I can say that it’s a billion dollar industry. There is money to be made. There are huge sums being collected by local, state and federal government. It’s an expensive medicine and part of the reason is it’s illegality at the federal level. Hopefully, as policy changes and more and more states are regulating this activity, we’ll see prices go down so it’s more affordable for patients. I think the money to be made will still be significant, but hopefully it won’t be so onerously expensive.
Sumner: Do you consider the recent trend of states passing laws with CBD only marijuana as a stall tactic or a victory for the medical marijuana movement?
Hermes: I think the cynical among us would call it a stall tactic, but perhaps it’s something in-between stalling and moving forward; it’s an intermittent small step. Assuming best intentions, we could come to the conclusion that they [state legislators] are trying to meet the needs of patients in their state, even if those laws are falling short of meeting those needs. Part of it is because of a lack of input from the patient community. They want it restrictive enough where children with epilepsy can get access, but where it cannot be abused.
Though they want to help children with epilepsy, these are no more than decriminalization bills. It does not allow for the production or distribution of the substance. While children with epilepsy will not be arrested for possessing or using cannabidiol oil, there is no legal mechanism for them to obtain it.
Hermes: More and more state officials are trying to pass extremely restrictive laws and they are doing so seemingly from a desire to curb abuse in medical marijuana programs. There is an ill-founded assumption that these programs in other states are being abused and what’s needed is a super restrictive law to prevent/avert that abuse. Law enforcement has, for many years, claimed that states have abused these laws, but has failed to offer much of any evidence. The perception is that California and other states have abused medical marijuana programs, but it’s not born out in the evidence.
In fact, California has been a model on how to regulate and license the distribution of medical marijuana. The dispensary model was developed in California; and that model has been used by other states and they have benefitted. Stats show that as many as 10 percent of a given population can be considered either a frequent or infrequent user of marijuana, and of the general population, statistically speaking, in the states with registries what they found in only about 1-2 percent of the population enrolls in these programs. That hardly indicates widespread abuse.
Kris Hermes has worked for nearly 30 years as a social justice activist. Since 2007, Kris has been issuing media releases, organizing press conferences, drafting critical reports and engaging in media strategy efforts on behalf of ASA and the advancement of medical marijuana policy at all levels of government. For more information about Americans for Safe Access and medical marijuana, please visit http://www.safeaccessnow.org/.