Ad says Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz wants to send medical pot users to prison

06/15/2014 12:00 AM

06/13/2014 4:56 PM

If you’re a South Florida senior citizen suffering from a deadly disease and you’re hoping to ease your pain with a puff of marijuana, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, has a prescription for you: federal prison.

At least that’s the impression created by a TV ad launched in June by Americans for Safe Access, a group that supports medical marijuana. The ad that aired through June 10 in Broward and Miami-Dade counties attacks Wasserman Schultz for her recent vote against a medical marijuana amendment. The visuals include a photo of an elderly woman who has ALS alongside her husband, who’s wearing a veterans cap.

“Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz thinks it’s OK for medical marijuana patients to go to federal prison,” the narrator states. “On May 30, she voted against an amendment that would respect Florida’s new laws and protect Florida’s patients. Even though 88 percent of voters support medical marijuana, why would Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz vote to send patients like this to prison? Is Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz out of touch with Florida?”

Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, represents a large elderly population in South Florida. So an ad suggesting that she wants to send ailing seniors to federal prison packs a punch.

We decided to take a look at the vote cited in the ad.

The ad cites a vote on an amendment to H.R. 4660, an appropriations — or funding — bill for departments of Commerce and Justice and science agencies. The amendment, offered by U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., states:

“None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used, with respect to the States of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin, to prevent such States from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

These are largely the states where some form of medical marijuana is allowed or pending — or in the case of Florida, is on the ballot this fall.

Wasserman Schultz was one of 17 Democrats in the House to vote against the amendment, which ended up passing, 219-189, on May 30. All told, 49 Republicans and 170 Democrats supported the amendment.

“I voted against the Farr-Rohrabacher amendment because I do not believe, regardless of the issue, that it is appropriate to limit the executive branch’s ability to enforce current federal law at their discretion,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement, in which she also raised concerns about Florida’s ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana.

A Wasserman Schultz spokesman sent us the statement but declined to comment specifically on the ad’s claim that she wants to send patients to prison.

Though proponents of medical marijuana cast the House’s affirmative vote on the amendment as a major victory after years of efforts, it still has to clear two major hurdles: the Senate and President Barack Obama.

As PolitiFact Florida has previously written, the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. Proponents of decriminalizing marijuana strongly disagree with that definition.

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Meanwhile, selling cannabis is considered a felony and can send a defendant to five years of prison, or even longer, depending on the amount and the circumstances. Cultivating cannabis plants carries similar penalties, based on the volume.

We asked Kris Hermes, a spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, if he could cite examples of medical marijuana patients being sent to federal prison. Hermes cited examples of marijuana busts in Montana, Michigan and California, but most of the cases involved large-scale cultivators and distributors. In some cases, prosecutors accused defendants of cultivating more plants than allowed under state law or selling for nonmedical reasons.

We sent the ad to a few academic experts who study marijuana laws and asked about the likelihood of patients going to prison.

“I know of no patient-only person sent to federal prison for use of marijuana,” Ohio State University professor Douglas Berman said.

Even before states started legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, the federal government didn’t throw defendants in prison simply for using marijuana, Vanderbilt law professor Robert Mikos told PolitiFact Florida. Prosecutors are focused on suppliers and distributors, he said.

“The way the ad is set up — that the federal government is going to go after elderly people with chronic illnesses for using marijuana for medical purposes — it’s just ridiculous,” Mikos said.

OUR RULING

The ad by Americans for Safe Access says that, judging by a recent vote, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz “thinks it’s OK for medical marijuana patients to go to federal prison” — even the elderly ALS patient shown in the ad. We can’t measure what Wasserman Schultz believes in her heart, but we are able to take a closer look at what her voting record shows.

She did vote against an amendment to prevent the federal government from using money to keep certain states from decriminalizing medical marijuana. And laws that could theoretically send medical marijuana users to prison remain on the books.

Still, it’s an exaggeration to say that Wasserman Schultz’s vote means she wants to send ailing seniors to prison for smoking a joint. The reality is that today, even without the amendment in force, federal prosecutions of medical marijuana users are exceedingly rare.

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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