WASHINGTON - The GOP-controlled House voted early Friday in favor of blocking the federal government from interfering with states that permit the use of medical marijuana.
The somewhat surprising 219-189 vote came as the House debated a bill funding the Justice Department's budget. The measure now heads to the Democratic Senate.
The amendment by conservative GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California - the first state to legalize medical marijuana - came as almost half the states have legalized marijuana for medical uses, such as improving the appetites of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Rohrabacher and 11 cosponsors, including California Democrats, Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Sam Farr argued that public opinion has shifted strongly to support for medical marijuana and against the federal government's prohibition of pot.
"Public opinion is shifting," Rohrabacher said, noting a recent Pew Research Center that found 61 percent of Republicans support medical marijuana. The numbers are higher for independents and Democrats.
"Despite this overwhelming shift of public opinion, the federal government continues its hard line of oppression against medical marijuana," he said.
Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer told opponents "this train has already left the station."
Democrat Lee called for "the implementation of the will of the voters to comply with state law rather than undermining our democracy."
Lee, who represents an area that has medical pot dispensaries, said, "In states with medical marijuana laws, patients face uncertainty regarding their treatment as small business owners who have invested millions, as small business owners who have invested millions creating jobs and revenue have no assurances for the future."
Opponents said marijuana is regulated too loosely by the states and harms the brain.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., cited a recent Drug Enforcement Administration study that said that many in the medical marijuana movement are using it as "a means to an end," meaning legalization for recreational use.
"Congress is officially pulling out of the war on medical marijuana patients and providers," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Rohrabacher's amendment must pass the Senate and be signed by President Obama before it becomes law. Still, today's vote marks a sharp reversal on the issue. KQED reports that six times before, the House had rejected virtually identical versions of the amendment, originally introduced in 2003 by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York. The last time the proposal came to a vote, in May 2012, it was defeated by a vote of 262-163.
Medical marijuana advocates hailed the vote.
Steve DeAngelo of Oakland-based Harborside Health Center, described as "the nation's largest, state-legal, model nonprofit medical cannabis dispensary," said in a statement that the vote sends a "message to elected officials and candidates everywhere" to "wake up and smell the cannabis."
"Hinchey-Rohrabacher has been one of the central goals of the medical cannabis movement for almost 20 years, and its passage is a clear sign of our movement's growing political sophistication and potency. Prohibitionists who predicted 'the stoners' would just lose motivation and forget about it have been proven decisively wrong."
DeAngelo has been fighting the federal government's efforts to shut down Harborside, reports SFGate.
In 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that it would "not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana." But that did not extend to businesses that the Justice Department considers hiding "behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."
The House vote indicates the need to deal with the contradictions between state law, public opinion, science and federal law. Early in the Obama administration, the Justice Department had said it wouldn't focus on medical cannabis dispensaries that followed state law. But in October 2012, alleging many supposedly non-profit clinics are raking in money by supplying people with no medical need, the Justice Department began moving against dispensaries even where states allow them. State and local legislators in states where medical marijuana is legal have been fighting back against the federal campaign for some time.
Sources: Associated Press, KQED, SFGate and peoplesworld.org.
Photo: U.S. marshals at the entrance of Oaksterdam University in Oakland. Noah Berger/AP