Saturday, July 12, 2008

McNerney changes medical marijuana stance

Rep. Jerry McNerney is now willing to vote for an amendment he'd opposed last year that would bar the federal government from spending money to arrest or prosecute medical-marijuana patients in the states — including California — where medical marijuana is legal.

"In the past year, the congressman has met several patients with debilitating illnesses that use doctor-prescribed medical marijuana," McNerney spokesman Andy Stone said Friday. "Hearing their stories, he feels that he cannot in good conscience deny doctor-prescribed treatment to a person that experiences excruciating pain on a daily basis."

Asked if this means McNerney, D-Pleasanton, will vote for the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment when it's brought forward again in the next few weeks, Stone replied, "That's a fair assumption."

Dan Bernath, assistant communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, was thrilled by the news.

"The support for medical marijuana and for the idea that states ought to be able to make these decisions for themselves ... has grown every year" since 2004, Bernath said Friday. "So it's very encouraging that Congressman McNerney has decided to support patients in his area, but I wouldn't say it's surprising."

A series of judicial defeats — including the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling in a case brought by Oakland activist Angel Raich — has had medical-marijuana advocates pinning most of their hopes Advertisementon Congress. The bipartisan amendment to the Science-State-Justice-Commerce Appropriations bill has been introduced in each year since 2003, and takes its name from sponsors Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach. The amendment was defeated in 2007 on a 165-262 vote; it got 163 votes in 2006, 161 votes in 2005, 148 in 2004 and 152 in 2003.

Half of the House's freshmen Democrats, including McNerney, opposed it last year. But with polls showing Democratic strength in this November's House elections, it's possible some now feel they have a bit more cover if they choose to displease a few conservative constituents this year.

Still, McNerney's 11th Congressional District — where growing Democratic voter registration still falls 2.4 percentage points short of Republican registration — is widely believed to offer the Bay Area's only truly competitive House race this year. Dean Andal, the Stockton Republican challenging McNerney this November, said Friday he strongly disagrees with McNerney's change of heart on this issue.

"It's probably hard to explain Jerry's position in our district. Some of our communities, like Stockton, are under assault from drug dealers," Andal said. "I do not believe that federal authorities should be handcuffed in their effort to interdict dangerous drugs including marijuana. ... The problem with medical marijuana is it's a red herring. These medical marijuana stores, so-called, have very low standards, there are people who don't have painful conditions who have ready access. ... Frankly, I think it's an outrage that Jerry would take this position."

McNerney last year had issued a statement saying his vote against the amendment was based on his conversations with law enforcement officials about the effect of drug use on his district's communities, particularly in San Joaquin County. "We are facing a drug crisis with meth and other drug use on the rise. Until we get a handle on the crippling drug use in our society, I cannot support the relaxation of current drug policy," he said at that time.

Medical marijuana advocates at that time had dismissed McNerney's explanation as an unfounded excuse for a politically safe vote.

Other Bay Area House Democrats have supported the amendment for years. Only Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, has consistently opposed it, saying he doesn't believe use of marijuana for medical purposes should be legal, and that the amendment is an attempt to circumvent existing federal law. A Cardoza aide said Friday the lawmaker's stance is unchanged.

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