The chair of the Democratic National Committee has irked many progressives by consistently voting against marijuana law reform, even opposing measures to protect medical cannabis patients from DEA raids.
But now the Democratic leader, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, may be evolving on the issue, if a vote she made last week is any indication.
When the U.S. House of Representatives considered an amendment to increase military veterans’ access to medical marijuana on Thursday, the Florida congresswoman voted aye, along with all but five other Democrats. Hours later, the Senate approved a similar measure.
But previously, Wasserman Schultz voted against the same amendment in 2014, taking a position opposite 173 other Democrats who backed the measure. (She was not present during a vote on the amendment last year, nor did she participate in other roll call votes on unrelated issues taking place the same day.)
Explaining the congresswoman’s 2014 vote against the measure, spokesman Sean Barlett told VICE at the time that she “felt that it was premature to vote for such an amendment given that [the Department of Health and Human Services] has approved a new study to look at marijuana’s potential effects on PTSD. While there is evidence that medical marijuana is effective in providing relief in some medical conditions, the congresswoman looks forward to the results of that study before making a policy determination.”
But advocates point out that no new HHS-approved studies on marijuana and PTSD have since been completed.
“The overall science on PTSD and cannabis has not changed much since 2014, in large part due to federal barriers to research,” Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), told Marijuana.com in an interview.
So what explains Wasserman Schultz’s evolution on the issue?
Her Congressional office declined to offer for comment for this story, but some observers have speculated that the robust primary challenge she is facing from medical cannabis supporter Tim Canova could explain the shift.
Canova told Marijuana.com in a statement that Wasserman Schultz is “feeling the heat on this issue from our campaign.”
Pointing to the fact that polls consistently show that most Floridians support medical marijuana, he said the congresswoman has “shown no leadership on this issue.”
Canova, who recently won an endorsement for his Congressional bid from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, is a supporter of rescheduling marijuana and letting states set their own cannabis laws without federal interference. His primary challenge to Wasserman Schultz is the first she has faced since being elected to Congress in 2004. The nominating contest between the two will be held on August 30.
Wasserman Schultz’s campaign staff did not response to a request for comment.
In addition to previously opposing the veterans measure, she has consistently voted against other marijuana reform proposals, including efforts to stop the Department of Justice from interfering with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws.
Aaron Houston, a former Congressional lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana.com that Wasserman Schultz’s new vote on veterans is part a “long history of her confused position” on cannabis issues.
“One year she told me behind closed doors that she wouldn’t support medical marijuana because she was a Girl Scout leader and didn’t want to send the wrong message to the girls,” he said of the Justice Department measure that is considered by Congress on an annual basis. “The next year, she told me that she would only vote in favor of the amendment if she was the deciding vote, which seemed odd because that could have put her squarely in the spotlight.”
(Disclosure: Houston is also a former political strategist Weedmaps, which owns and operates Marijuana.com.)
Following Wasserman Schultz’s vote against the 2014 version of Justice Department amendment, ASA produced an ad saying that she “thinks it’s OK for medical marijuana patients to go to federal prison.”
Also in 2014, the congresswoman opposed a constitutional amendment that appeared on Florida’s ballot which would have legalized medical marijuana statewide.
“I have concerns that it is written too broadly and stops short of ensuring strong regulatory oversight from state officials,” she said. “Other states have shown that lax oversight and ease of access to prescriptions can lead to abuse, fraud and accidents. Also, given Florida’s recent history in combating the epidemic of ‘pill mills’ and dubious distinction as having among the highest incidents of fraud, I do not believe we should make it easier for those seeking to abuse the drug to have easy access to it.”
“I’m heartened by DWS’s recent vote on the vets and medical marijuana and hope it signals a broader shift in her position,” said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for the Florida medical cannabis effort.
Pollara and John Morgan, a trial attorney who is the chief funder of the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, have feuded with Wasserman Schultz in the past over her opposition to reform.
Morgan, a major Democratic Party donor, even accused the congresswoman of offering to change her position on medical marijuana if he’d agree to stop attacking her in the press over her past opposition. He previously said Wasserman Schultz “isn’t just disliked. She’s despised. She’s an irritant.” Those harsh words for the national Democratic Party’s top official were viewed as remarkable coming from a major donor.
In a New York Times Magazine interview earlier this year, Wasserman Schultz implied that marijuana is a gateway drug. “I don’t oppose the use of medical marijuana. I just don’t think we should legalize more mind-altering substances if we want to make it less likely that people travel down the path toward using drugs,” she said. “We have had a resurgence of drug use instead of a decline. There is a huge heroin epidemic.”
Still, even while opposing reform, the congresswoman has tried to appear sympathetic to patients who may benefit from medical cannabis.
“As a cancer survivor, mother and lawmaker, I am acutely empathetic to the suffering of people with terminal illnesses and chronic pain,” she said in 2014. “My view is that approval of the use of marijuana as a medical treatment should be handled responsibly and in a regulated manner that ensures its approval does not do more harm than good.”
On one occasion Wasserman Schultz voted in committee against a Republican-backed amendment to overturn Washington, D.C.’s local marijuana laws, but advocates viewed her position as more about protecting a Democratic-controlled city from national conservative interference than about cannabis in particular.
Reform advocates said they are eager to see how the congresswoman votes on other marijuana amendments that could come up soon, including this year’s version of the measure to prevent Justice Department interference with state medical cannabis laws.
“She has to stand up on this issue very clearly and thoroughly, otherwise people will think she is just trying to slip through her challenging primary,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Liszewski, of ASA, held out hope that the shift is genuine.
“It’s possible that Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz had not fully considered the existing science that was available in 2014, such as the 2014 Journal of Psychoactive Drugs study with showed a 75% reduction in several areas of PTSD symptoms,” he said of her previous opposition to the veterans measure. “Medical cannabis patients will be watching to make sure the congresswoman continues to vote in favor of safe access.”
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