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Opioid Crisis is Focus of Medical Marijuana Advocates as Congress Considers Extending – or Ending – Program Protection in December

It’s getting closer to December, which means it’s getting closer to yet another moment in which Congress could end the medical marijuana program protections for over 2 million patients in this country.

Congressman Earl Blumenaur addresses a rally by the Americans for Safe Access in front of the Capitol.

That was the reason that the medical marijuana advocate group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), took to Capitol Hill on November 1 to galvanize a group of supporters and patients who want the government to do the right thing – again – and include an amendment in the 2018 appropriations bill that prohibits the U.S. Department of Justice from using any funds to interfere with states’ medical cannabis programs.

The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment (formerly the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment) has passed twice on the House floor and has been part of the appropriations package since 2015. This year, the Committee on Rules voted to block a floor vote on this amendment, which some indicated was a reaction to statements made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and perhaps some direction from President Trump himself.

But a Senate version of the amendment, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, was passed in July in the Senate fiscal year 2018 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.

Final details of the FY 2018 appropriations are set to be determined by early December, with the hope that Leahy’s bill will survive.

The ASA rally took aim at the opioid crisis as one of the major drivers for keeping medical marijuana programs going in the 30 states and the District of Columbia, connecting it with the announcement by Trump declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

Similar rallies were planned across the country on the same day.

“Cannabis is non-addictive, it’s cheap and it makes a difference for people’s lives,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer said at the beginning of the rally. “It’s past time that the federal government steps up and embraces this. But in the meantime, we need to make sure people help us with the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, to make sure that the federal government cannot interfere with what is now legal in the majority of our states, which is access to medical marijuana. This has the opportunity to transform lives, save money and helps us deal with this tragedy of losing 145 people a day from overdose deaths,” he said. “We will continue working with you on Capitol Hill to make sure the point is made, and to stop the interference, then legalize and expand the beneficial impact of medical marijuana.”

Part of the rally group delivered letters to chairs and ranking members of the appropriations committee, including Senator Thad Cochran.

Steph Sherer, founder and executive director of ASA, said that there is another epidemic behind the opioid epidemic and that is the pain epidemic in this country. “One third of Americans live in pain every day, and only a few Americans have the option to choose cannabis,” she said. “Few medical professionals in this country understand the law, and not many patients understand that cannabis is for pain. So that education of patients and doctors falls on advocates like us, and the ability and freedom for us to have that choice falls on the people in this building right here,” she said, gesturing to the Capitol building.

She said that the ASA and medical marijuana advocates are not actually asking Congress to spend money, but simply to reaffirm the amendments that have been passed in the last sessions, and keep Attorney General Jeff Sessions at bay. “In my mind, this amendment is like keeping Sessions on a leash,” she said. “The last thing that states need is for the federal government to take away from states one tool that is actually working.”

What followed were presentations by patients about their struggles with opioids and how cannabis had changed their lives.

After those presentations, the group split into two smaller groups – one heading to the Senate office buildings and one heading to the House office buildings on the Hill. There, letters from the ASA were hand-delivered to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House Committees on Appropriations, urging them to include the medical cannabis amendment in the fiscal year 2018 appropriations package.

Letters urging Congress to ensure the amendment would be protected were handed to staffers of appropriations chairs Senator Thad Cochran and Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, and to appropriations committee ranking members Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Nita Lowery.

The letter is signed by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, U.S. Pain Foundation, Epilepsy Foundation, Tourette Association of America, National Women’s Health Network, Realm of Caring and the ASA.

All that can be done now is to wait and see what Congress will do.

David HodesDavid Hodes

David Hodes

David Hodes is based in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area. He is the former editor of seven different business magazines, and has contributed feature articles to several business/lifestyle publications and national cannabis magazines. Hodes is also a former field producer for CBS News, NBC, NFL Network, ESPN and other media outlets; worked as a news promotions producer for two network affiliates; and was the morning news editor for a third network affiliate.

He is member of the National Press Club, and deputy booking agent for the National Press Club Headliners Committee.

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