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

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

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 26, 2015

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

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.

https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/20f4b2f1-a33c-45f8-b2cb-8f8dad9c3b5b

Our Sources

U.S. Library of Congress, Roll Call votes related to marijuana prosecution amendments in 2012, 2007, 2006, and 2005.

GovTrack, House Amendment 748 to H.R. 4660,  May 30, 2014

U.S. Library of Congress, H.R. 4486 Roll Call 186, April 30, 2014

Congress.gov, "H.R. 83," Became law Dec. 16, 2014

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Statement on medical marijuana, June 6, 2014

U.S. Department of Justice, "Memorandum for all United States Attorneys," Aug. 29, 2013

Professor Ilya Somin post on Volokh Conspiracy blog,"Justice Department finally announces it's response to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington," Aug. 29, 2013

Politico, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz considering 2016 Senate bid," Feb. 17, 2015

Politico, "Pro-pot lobby vows to blunt Wasserman Schultz," Feb. 19, 2015

Politico, "Debbie’s damage control," Feb. 19, 2015

Tampa Bay Times, "Fla. Insider Poll: Sizing up ‘16 U.S. Senate race," Feb. 1, 2015

Sun-Sentinel, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz disputes claims she offered to switch position on medical marijuana," Feb. 20, 2015

Los Angeles Times, "Congress quietly ends federal government’s ban on medical marijuana," Dec. 17, 2014

Washington Post, "No THC for VA," Accessed in Nexis, May 2, 2014

Washington Post, "New bill would allow VA to recommend marijuana for patients," Nov. 25, 2014

Associated Press, "Feds drop prosecution in Washington medical marijuana case," Feb. 20, 2015

Miami Herald’s Naked Politics blog, "Dem donor John Morgan blasts ‘irrelevant ... irritant’ DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz over RX pot," June 6, 2014

CBS News, "Government approves study of marijuana smoking to treat PTSD in military patients," March 18, 2014

PolitiFact, "Ad says Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants to send medical pot users to prison," June 10, 2014

PolitiFact, "Pam Bondi says medical marijuana is illegal under federal law, with or without amendment," Dec. 17, 2013

PolitiFact, "John Morgan says ‘a SWAT team of hooligans’ arrested medical marijuana activist Cathy Jordan," March 13, 2014

Forbes, "Would the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment actually stop medical marijuana raids?" June 3, 2014

NPR, "GOP House votes to leave states alone on medical marijuana," May 30, 2014

USA Today, "Pot growers face charges -- in state where pot is legal," May 19, 2014

Associated Press, "Guilty pleas in W. Michigan marijuana case stand," May 30, 2013

Detroit Free Press, "Medical marijuana rally protests 10 year sentence for farmer," May 28, 2013

San Bernardino Sun, "California Supreme Court may have final word on medical marijuana laws," Jan. 13, 2013

Riverside Press Enterprise, "Marijuana dispensary owner gets 10 years," Jan. 8, 2013

San Francisco Chronicle, "Big shift in D.C. over medical pot," June 6, 2014

Lansing City Pulse, "Okemos 7," July 10, 2013

Missoulian, "Montana medical marijuana grower gets five years in federal prison,"  Feb. 1, 2013

Associated Press, "Medical marijuana provider to be sentenced," Feb. 1, 2013

Spokesman Review, "Kettle Falls 5 case tests marijuana laws," May 11, 2014

Interview, Bill Piper, Drug Policy Alliance national affairs director, Feb. 19, 2015

Interview,  Grant Smith, Drug Policy Alliance deputy director for national affairs, Feb. 23, 2015

Interview, Ilya Somin, professor, George Mason University School of Law, Feb. 24, 2015

Interview, Robert Mikos, Vanderbilt Law School director of Program in Law and Government, Feb. 23, 2015

Interview,  Douglas Berman, law professor Ohio State University, Feb. 23, 2015

Interview, Sean Bartlett, spokesman U.S. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Feb. 24, 2015

Interview, Jeff Vanderslice, legislative director for U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48), Feb. 24, 2015

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