Pot advocates bummed about end of Obama era

Allen Peake writes laws for a living. Sometimes he breaks them, too.

The Republican state representative from Macon, Georgia, says he’d “break every law in the books” to make sure sick kids can get cannabis oil to help them with their seizures. But he says things would be much easier if Congress just would legalize medical marijuana.

“My message to Congress is very simple: Change the damn law,” Peake said.

Peake’s message carried a new urgency on Capitol Hill Tuesday, when hundreds of activists from Georgia to Washington state joined to pressure Congress to vote on medical marijuana before a new president takes office.

“We have over 3,000 veterans that come to our little shop in Olympia to get their medicine,” said Patrick Seifert, a Marine Corps veteran who owns a medical marijuana dispensary in Olympia, Washington, called Rainier Xpress.

While 23 states so far have legalized medical marijuana and four states allow recreational use, the drug is still illegal under federal law.

The Obama administration has allowed most dispensaries to operate without fear of prosecution, so long as states do a good job of policing them. But having the federal law on the books is still a worrisome prospect for many.

“Everything we have fought for is holding on these little threads of goodwill,” said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a pro-legalization group that sponsored the 2016 National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference in Washington, D.C., a four-day event that ended Tuesday.

At a Monday meeting at the Loews Madison Hotel in Washington, she sought to light a fire under the legalization advocates, warning them of the high stakes.

“I think we've gotten a little lazy and a little comfortable. . . . Have you thought about Attorney General Christie?” she asked, making a reference to New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor who dropped out of the presidential race last month and now backs GOP front-runner Donald Trump. Christie, whom many see as a possible attorney general nominee if Trump wins the White House, said last year that he opposed legalizing marijuana.

Sherer said the immediate goal is to convince Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to schedule a hearing on a bill that would allows states with legalized medical marijuana to operate without federal interference. The bill, called the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2015, would also remove marijuana from the list of Schedule 1 drugs, those defined as having no medical use and a high potential for abuse. The list includes heroin, ecstasy and LSD.

Opponents say that would be a mistake.

“We didn't need to reschedule opium to derive morphine from it, nor do we need to reschedule marijuana to create approved medicines from it,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

While Congress has shown no interest in taking up legalization, many predict that will soon change, with younger voters overwhelmingly backing a change in federal law.

“We’re getting rid of people in the electorate who have 35 percent support for marijuana reform and you’re replacing them with people with 85 percent support for marijuana reform,” said John Hudak, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

He said most polls show Americans “wildly in favor” of medical marijuana, adding: “You can go to the reddest states in the United States and you will find majority support.”

In 2015, Peake convinced the Georgia Legislature to approve a narrow bill that allows for possession of liquid cannabis for patients who sign up on a state registry.

Peake took a victory lap at the conference on Monday night, accepting an award as state legislator of the year. Americans for Safe Access saluted Peake’s civil disobedience, calling him a “tenacious champion” of its growing movement.

“I’m a conservative Republican serving in a very conservative state,” Peake, 55, said in an interview Monday. “When I first introduced the legislation, folks thought I had lost my mind.”

Peake, who says he’s never smoked pot, has been thwarted in his efforts to expand the bill to allow Georgians to grow their own marijuana. He said too many people must buy their oil elsewhere and risk arrest when they cross state lines.

He won’t say exactly how he broke the law to help them, only that he has been in possession of cannabis oil and given it to registered families. And he won’t say where he got the oil, either.

“While I’m fully prepared to go to jail for these families if I have to, I’d rather not,” Peake said.

One of his constituents, Leslie Johns, 45, of Macon, said she appreciates her representative’s work.

Her 13-year-old son, Darrell, was born with hydrocephalus, which results in excessive fluid accumulation on the brain. Years ago, he began having multiple seizures, losing his speech. She said things changed when he began taking cannabis oil twice a day last summer.

“He started cannabis on July 28th and, six days later on August 3rd, he called me ‘Mama’ for the first time ever in his life,” Johns said. “It’s a big deal.”

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009, @HotakainenRob