Why Congress Gave In to Medical Marijuana

For the first time, lawmakers approved a measure to block the Justice Department from going after states where pot is legal for health reasons.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Congress may have tried to stop residents of the nation's capital from being able to light up joints with impunity, but lawmakers retreated last week in another important drug-war front: medical marijuana.

The $1 trillion spending bill that passed last week included a provision that blocks the Justice Department from spending any money to enforce a federal ban on growing or selling marijuana in the 23 states that have moved to legalize it for medical use. It marks a huge shift for Congress, which for years had sided with federal prosecutors in their battle with states over the liberalization of drug laws. "The war on medical marijuana is over," Bill Piper, a lobbyist with the Drug Policy Alliance, declared to the Los Angeles Times.

Another leading advocate of legalization, Allen St. Pierre of NORML, was pleased but not quite so jubilant. After all, under President Obama, the Justice Department in the last five years has sharply curtailed its raids on pot growers and sellers. But directives from Washington, he said, had not stopped overzealous prosecutors and DEA agents in parts of California from targeting the largest marijuana dispensaries. Will they follow Congress but not the president? "They will decide whether this comes to be," St. Pierre said by phone, in reference to the prosecutors and the DEA.

More broadly, the fact that the policy change made it through a Republican-controlled House is indicative of how the fight over drug laws has shifted from a debate over the medical benefits for people suffering from cancer and other diseases to the question of total legalization. Just last month, voters in Alaska and Oregon as well as D.C. approved measures allowing for the recreational use of marijuana. Congress wasn't ready to go that far, moving to block D.C.'s recreational law, but party leaders signed off on allowing pot for medical uses.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, was one of the authors of the medical-use provision, and he made the case to his colleagues on grounds that many conservatives can understand: states' rights. In a statement, he said his amendment would force the federal government to "respect state sovereignty" on the question of medical marijuana.

St. Pierre, however, says the shift is more generational. As Baby Boomers and their children have come to occupy positions of power across all levels of government, opposition to a strict marijuana prohibition has dropped. "There's almost a fait accompli," he said. A poll by the Third Way think tank in September found that while the country is still split on recreational marijuana, more the three-quarters—78 percent—support legal pot use for medical purposes. It might not do much for Congress's dismal approval rating, but on this issue at least, lawmakers appear to be following the public.