Mostly False
Drug Policy Alliance
Says Debbie Wasserman Schultz "voted repeatedly to send terminally ill patients to prison."

Drug Policy Alliance on Thursday, February 19th, 2015 in an article in Politico

Pro-pot group says Debbie Wasserman Schultz repeatedly voted to send sick patients to prison

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is shown speaking in Florida in 2012.

As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., weighs a potential presidential bid in 2016, a long list of politicians are considering whether to run for his Senate seat.

That includes U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, according to a Politico report on Feb. 17. (She’s not a lock on the Democratic side. A Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll suggests U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Palm Beach County and newly elected U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Leon County could also be strong contenders.)

One group was quick to attack Wasserman Schultz’s potential candidacy: The pro-pot lobby. Last year, she opposed Florida’s medical marijuana ballot initiative, which received almost 58 percent support, two points shy of passage. She also voted against a congressional amendment supported by advocates for medical marijuana.

"She’s voted repeatedly to send terminally ill patients to prison. And we’re certainly going to make sure Floridians know that — not to mince words," Bill Piper, national affairs director with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Politico.

Did Wasserman Schultz repeatedly take votes to send dying patients to prison?

Politico reported in a follow-up article that Wasserman Schultz offered to change her opposition if Orlando lawyer John Morgan, the force behind the Florida ballot initiative, stopped bashing her, which she denied in an interview with the Sun Sentinel. Morgan hopes to get a revised version on the ballot in 2016.

Wasserman Schultz’s marijuana voting record

The Drug Policy Alliance pointed to several of Wasserman Schultz’s votes, including on a congressional amendment that banned the use of federal money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. The goal of the amendment, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., was to prevent federal agents from raiding retail operations in states where medical pot is legal. (We looked at a similar claim by another pro-pot group about her vote in 2014.)

Wasserman Schultz, one of 17 Democrats in the House to vote against the amendment on May 30, 2014, said she didn’t want to "limit the executive branch’s ability to enforce current federal law at their discretion."

The language was attached to another bill and signed into law in December. (She voted against similar failed amendments four times between 2005 and 2012.)

Her vote on those amendments "was very much focused on patients, and the fear of arrest they and their caregivers live under," Piper told PolitiFact Florida. He also argued that the Florida ballot measure -- which Wasserman Schultz opposed -- would have protected patients using medical marijuana.  

Last year, she said the Florida ballot initiative was "written too broadly and stops short of ensuring strong regulatory oversight from state officials."

Piper also pointed to Wasserman Schultz’s "no" vote on an April 2014 congressional amendment on a spending bill for Veterans Affairs. The amendment, which failed, would have allowed VA doctors to talk to their patients about medical marijuana in states in which it is legal. But it’s a stretch to say that her "no" vote means she wants dying patients to go to prison.

Wasserman Schultz spokesman Sean Bartlett told the Washington Post at the time that she felt it was premature to vote on the amendment. She wanted to wait for the results of a study approved by the federal government to look at marijuana’s potential effects on post-traumatic stress disorder.

Do feds put terminally ill patients in prison?

Do these votes mean she repeatedly voted to send terminally ill patients to prison? That’s a stretch.

Even before her 2014 congressional votes, there were reasons that users were not a priority for the feds.

In 2013, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memorandum to federal attorneys telling them to focus on cartels or other criminal organizations. Beyond that, the Justice Department said it was content to allow state and local agencies "to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws."

The pro-pot lobby has pointed to cases of growers prosecuted for serving ill patients, including transplant recipient Jerry Duval, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Duval was a state-registered caregiver but prosecutors argued he peddled pot to non-patients.

One high-profile case remains pending -- initially dubbed Kettle Falls 5, named for defendants in eastern Washington. Prosecutors say the five defendants were conspiring to manufacture and distribute marijuana, and they were also charged with possessing firearms.

One defendant, Larry Harvey, told USA Today that the pot he grew was for personal medical use. On Feb. 18, the Justice Department dropped the charges against Harvey, 71, who was recently diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. However, the charges remain for his wife, two other relatives and a family friend.

Law professors we interviewed told us that the federal government hasn’t focused on individuals who simply use marijuana for their own medical needs, and that was true even before the congressional amendment passed.

"The feds don't send people to prison for using marijuana," Vanderbilt law Professor Robert Mikos told PolitiFact Florida. "They do deny some benefits to users (like access to some VA services). And the law authorizes prison for users. But the law is not enforced so rigidly."

George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, said that the amendment passed last year "may well constrain federal prosecution of medical marijuana suppliers in states where their activities are legal." However, he added, the fact that the Kettle Falls case is still going forward shows such prosecutions still can happen.

Our ruling

Wasserman Schultz "voted repeatedly to send terminally ill patients to prison," Piper said.

She voted against amendments to ban the federal government from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. In theory, advocates believe that the amendment -- which passed late in 2014 after multiple attempts -- prevents the feds from going after sick marijuana users in states that allow medical marijuana.

However, even before the amendment passed, dying patients who simply smoked joints that they obtained legally were not being hauled off to prison en masse by federal agents. Instead, the federal government focused on major suppliers or distributors. Saying Wasserman Schultz voted to send people to prison significantly exaggerates the issue.

The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

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