Congress tries to clear the air between states, feds over legal pot

Daniel Porras, 61, vapes pure cannabinoid oil, the healing substance in marijuana, to manage his pain resulting from a 2005 motorcycle accident. Photo taken in Sultan, Wash., on Dec. 8, 2015.
Daniel Porras, 61, vapes pure cannabinoid oil, the healing substance in marijuana, to manage his pain resulting from a 2005 motorcycle accident. Photo taken in Sultan, Wash., on Dec. 8, 2015. The News Tribune

Daniel Porras’ doctor told him that of all of his patients, he was the only one who asked for fewer pain pills.

Porras damaged his ankle and Achilles tendon and suffered severe nerve damage in his left leg as a result of a motorcycle accident a decade ago. He originally took morphine because the pain was so bad. But it knocked him out to the point where he could barely function.

His objection to more pills was not that his discomfort was beginning to ease. Medical marijuana just worked better.

“If you can drop pain pills out of your life, you have a better life,” said the 61-year-old Army veteran from Sultan, Washington.

Medical marijuana “has given me a full life,” Porras said. “It’s a true medicine.”

And it’s gaining wider acceptance.

The budget bill that Congress hopes to pass this week to avoid a partial government shutdown contains several measures that would keep the federal government’s official opposition to the use of pot medically and recreationally from blocking state policies that are more permissive.

Twenty-three states, the District of Columbia and Guam have approved medical marijuana programs, and four states and D.C. have approved recreational use. A Gallup poll recently found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Medical marijuana use receives even more support.

But resistance remains.

Drug Enforcement Administration Director Chuck Rosenberg recently said that medical marijuana was “a joke,” prompting calls for his resignation.

Rep Jim. McDermott, D-Wash., who is also a physician, told the White House in a letter signed by six other lawmakers that the director’s comment was a “throwback ideology rooted in the failed war on drugs.”

On Capitol Hill, four amendments would legislate the federal government’s hands-off approach on state marijuana policies.

One would give physicians at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in states with pot programs the ability to make medical marijuana referrals for people like Porras and another Vietnam vet, Jerrel Thompson. Current VA policy follows the federal prohibition on all medical marijuana treatment, even in states with approved programs.

Thompson, 69, of Moses Lake, Washington, has been using medical marijuana mainly to help with the post-traumatic stress disorder that he developed after serving in Vietnam. It has helped, and his VA doctors know he relies on it. But they can do little more than just prescribe more pills.

“Veterans shouldn’t have to leave the VA for any services,” said Michael Krawitz, executive director for Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.

Another congressional measure would provide legal protection for banks that work with businesses participating in marijuana programs.

“We have had three accounts closed on us because we have cannabis in the name,” said Leslie Bocskor, an investment banker and founding chairman of the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group. “The biggest challenges are obviously working at undoing many decades of propaganda.”

Other measures would continue to allow states to create their own policies on recreational and medical marijuana use, and protect industrial hemp research.

“The big picture goal is to make the federal activities work in harmony with the efforts of the states to address marijuana,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who introduced three of the marijuana provisions to the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It reflects that we are essentially at this point where prohibition for marijuana is at an end.”

But state and national laws continue to conflict.

One problem is that marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug and considered to be dangerous and of no reputable medical use, according to the DEA. That makes it difficult for marijuana-related businesses to operate legitimately.

“I have a bank I’ve banked with for years,” said Alan Schreiber, an agricultural researcher from Franklin County, Washington, who began growing marijuana on his Yakima County farm to help his work. “They’ve said they would call in my loan if I put any of the proceeds from cannabis in my bank. What do you do with the money?”

One of the focuses of his research company, for instance, is best practices for cannabis growers, because he found a huge information gap on things like irrigation, fertilizer and weed control.

Bocskor said that giving these businesses legitimacy is important as marijuana grows possibly into a $200 billion industry within the next decade or so.

“It’s a global phenomenon,” he said.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported in June that marijuana can help patients with chronic pain, neuropathic pain and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis.

Certain cannabinoids, the active chemicals in cannabis, have demonstrated abilities to manage side effects of cancer and cancer therapies, such as nausea, loss of appetite, anxiety and sleep trouble, according to The National Cancer Institute.

Marijuana opponents discredit the research.

“A lot of people don’t know what they are really inhaling or eating,” said Rick Miller, a commissioner in Franklin County, Washington, a state where marijuana production, distribution and possession for people 21 and older became legal in 2014. “I do not think the research is very strong.”

Marijuana reform activists see progress.

Paul Armentano, deputy director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORML, said the steps by Congress reveal “that there is a belief that when such programs are well regulated by the state they can be enacted safely and effectively.”

Congress denied the Justice Department funds last year to prevent states from implementing their own laws on “distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

That vote was cited in October in a victory for a California medical marijuana group. A federal judge ruled that because the organization was in compliance with state law that permitted the use of marijuana, the Justice Department could not interfere.

Porras, meanwhile, continues his daily regimen: a topical marijuana-based cream, a couple of hits from a pen vaporizer and occasionally some pot in an edible form.

He went outside the VA system to access medical marijuana treatment, partly because he wants comprehensive care from his doctor. But it’s not as if medical marijuana has eliminated his pain. It’s just made it bearable.

“To deny veterans the opportunity to consider whether or not this makes sense to them, using their primary care doctor who knows them the best, seems really ludicrous,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who helped introduce the VA provision about medical marijuana.

Changing the rules governing medical marijuana, he said, “will help drag the VA into the 21st century.

Grace Toohey: @grace_2e