The GOP-controlled House voted early Friday in favor of blocking the federal government from interfering with states that permit the use of medical marijuana. Twenty-one U.S. states have legalized marijuana for medical uses, such as improving appetites of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
The somewhat surprising 219-189 vote came as the House debated a bill funding the Justice Department's budget.
The amendment was put forth by conservative GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California — the first state to legalize medical marijuana.
"Public opinion is shifting," Rohrabacher said, noting a recent Pew Research Center study that found 61 percent of Republicans support medical marijuana. The numbers are higher for independents and Democrats.
"Despite this overwhelming shift of public opinion, the federal government continues its hard line of oppression against medical marijuana," he said.
Republican legislators played a major role in the passage of a Farm Bill on Feb. 4 that allows colleges and state agencies to grow and conduct research on hemp — marijuana’s non-toxic cousin — in the nine states where it is legal.
House opponents of medical marijuana argued that the drug is regulated too loosely by the states where it’s permitted and harms the brain.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., cited a recent Drug Enforcement Administration study that found many in the medical marijuana movement are using it as "a means to an end," meaning legalization for recreational use.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., retorted by telling reporters "this train has already left the station."
Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said Friday’s vote shows "Congress is officially pulling out of the war on medical marijuana patients and providers."
The measure now heads to the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press