Can GOP oppose medical marijuana while bashing Obamacare?

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

It was only a brief exchange, but sometimes more wisdom can be found in a few words than in the thousands spewed during a long legislative debate.

Minnesota state senators Tuesday afternoon were debating the merits of a bill to legalize medical marijuana, one of the more heated issues on the agenda in several states across the country.

MEDICAL POT AND OBAMACARE: Is it okay to oppose the federal government interfering in health care decisions while supporting state efforts to limit those same decisions? It’s a question Republicans have to answer as the national debate on medical marijuana continues.

The dynamics of the debate were interesting, because party lines, particularly on the Republican side, could basically be thrown out the window.

State Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, noticed it, too.

Petersen, who supported the bill, was in the midst of a passionate appeal to his fellow Republicans when he nailed it.

Republicans have been bashing the federal Affordable Care Act, Petersen said, for taking medical decisions out of the hands of individuals and their doctors, instead leaving them up to bureaucrats and politicians.

If the line sounds familiar, it’s because it has been a GOP talking point since the idea of Obamacare was first proposed. You’ve been hearing the same claim, or some version of it, for years, and it will continue at least through this fall’s midterm elections.

But many Republicans oppose medical marijuana, essentially saying government should be telling individuals and their doctors what treatments are available.

“Do you believe that health-care decisions are best made between doctors and patients? That’s the fundamental question,” Peterson said. “You either believe that or you don’t believe it. And I believe it.”

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, disagreed.

If patients and doctors are free to choose any treatment under the sun, he said, then the government would have to be OK with “snake oil and blood-letting” as legitimate medical treatments. Those who are part of the “libertarian vein” also have to justify other medical procedures that “no longer stand the test of time,” he said.

Then came the best line of the day. Limmer said he could not support medical marijuana because the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it.

PETERSEN: “Do you believe that health care decisions are best made between doctors and patients? That’s the fundamental question”

“I think I would rather rely on a government-approved agency who can confirm whether it’s a good product or not,” he said.

It’s worth noting that in 2013 Limmer participated in a rally at the Capitol in St. Paul sponsored by the Citizens Council for Health Freedom, which was trying to build support in opposition to Medicaid expansion and other elements of the Affordable Care Act.

The flier from the event, with Limmer’s face on the cover, lists seven reasons to oppose Obamacare.

Reason No. 2: “Seven strangers on the Exchange Board will decide your health-care choices.”

And just for good measure, here’s reason No. 4: “The board of seven political appointees will make up its own rules without your input.”

In other words, you won’t be free to pursue the treatments you and your doctor believe best.

After the debate, Limmer explained to me why he sees a difference between medical marijuana and other government intrusions into health-care, such as the Affordable Care Act.

“I think Senator Petersen is correct in most cases — any medical decision should be between a patient and their doctor,” he said. “But there is a role for government in making sure that medical treatments are safe for people to use.”

LIMMER: “I think I would rather rely on a government-approved agency who can confirm whether it’s a good product or not.”

He again invoked the FDA and acknowledge federal limits on what research can be conducted on marijuana are the real problem. Limmer wants to see the Obama administration lift those restrictions so the FDA can make a complete examination of the safety and effectiveness of what he called “an herbal remedy that is trying to be treated like a pharmaceutical.”

It’s a fair argument to make. Limmer and those who agree with him want to err on the side of caution.

But limiting medical options by government edict prevents doctors and patients from weighing those potential risks and benefits on their own, individual, level. Blood-letting and snake oil aren’t out of fashion as medical treatments because governments banned them — it’s because medical science advanced, and doctors and patients agreed on better ways of treating illnesses.

If cancer patients, the terminally ill and children with debilitating seizures want to use medical marijuana in the hopes of getting some relief — and their doctors agree it’s a positive course of action — why should government thrust itself into the middle of that relationship?

It’s a question being fought over in lots of places beyond Minnesota, too.

Vermont’s Legislature voted last week to remove limits on how many people could get medical marijuana through the state’s dispensaries.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett, another Republican, recently reversed course and offered his support for legalizing medical marijuana there. The state General Assembly is working on a bill to do just that.

Debates over the issue are ongoing in Kansas, Texas and Iowa, among other places. Florida voters in November will decide if medical marijuana will be legal.

For what it’s worth, the Minnesota state Senate approved the medical marijuana bill with a bipartisan vote of 48-18 on Tuesday evening.

Seventeen of the “no” votes came from Republicans, including Limmer and state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, another of the speakers at that rally last year opposing government intervention in health care.

Medical marijuana might work for some illnesses. It might be pure bunk and good for nothing more than a legal high. The research is pretty mixed and not worth trying to sort out here.

But politicians and political parties who make individual freedom and choice the central issue of one health-care debate cannot argue the government is right to limit individual choice and freedom in a different health-care debate.

Boehm can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org and follow @EricBoehm87 and @WatchdogOrg on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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