Voters in four congressional districts -- three in California, one in Oregon -- answered their phones last week to hear a recorded message from Angel McClary Raich, an Oakland mother with an inoperable brain tumor, boldly announcing: "I'm a medical marijuana patient, and your congressman is threatening my life."
More than 600,000 registered voters in San Bernardino, Simi Valley, Chico and Portland, Ore., will get similar messages from Raich or from another activist, Marney Craig, by next Monday, said Steph Sherer, the director of Americans for Safe Access, a San Francisco group sponsoring the telephone campaign.
The four targeted congressmen -- Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino), Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), Wally Herger (R-Marysville) and David Wu (D-Ore.) -- voted in July against an unsuccessful budget amendment that would have cut funding to federal drug enforcement authorities for raiding facilities where marijuana is grown or distributed for purported medical use.
They also represent districts where federal officials have arrested people for violating federal marijuana laws, despite their compliance with more lenient state laws.
"We're going to hit them where they live," said Sherer, who emphasized that the campaign is not partisan. "Our hope is that we educate the congressmen that there is support for medical marijuana use."
Sherer said California's passage of Prop. 215 in 1996, which legalized the use of cannabis for medical purposes and was approved by 56% of the state's voters, was evidence of that support.
Herger, who represents a swath of small rural counties in Northern California, dismissed the budget amendment and the phone message campaign.
"I find it curious that they'd choose as subject matter a vote on an amendment that failed outright by almost a 2-1 margin," Herger said. "It is unfortunate that campaigns like these continue to exploit the suffering of the sick to mislead people about the negative effects of marijuana use and legalization."
Elton Gallegly, who said his office had received several calls about the messages, seemed equally unfazed.
"I really wasn't elected to do a survey before I vote on things," Gallegly said. "We have a tremendous population of young people in my district, and the use of illegal drugs is a major concern."
He said the reason marijuana is a controlled substance is that "it does lead to harder drugs."
Wu said he opposed the bill on similar grounds, saying that the "use of marijuana is medically unnecessary and prone to abuse."
Baca did not return calls for comment last week.
Nine states -- California, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- have medical marijuana legislation that is less stringent than federal drug policy. The imbalance has spawned a series of court fights and federal bills as parties on both sides of the marijuana issue try to disentangle questions of states' rights, medical necessity and drug policy enforcement.
Raich, one of the two people who recorded a message, says that she cannot use conventional medications because of a wasting condition. The cannabis provides pain relief and stimulates her appetite, she said. Last summer, she filed a lawsuit against the federal government for denying her free access to cannabis, as state law permits. The case is under review in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
"I wasn't even in support of drug use at all before I became a medical cannabis patient," she said. "But I would be paralyzed if it wasn't for cannabis. We're just trying to say that we're sick, and this is medicine."
Sherer, who said she uses cannabis in a vaporized form to treat chronic neck spasms, said that federal policy under the Bush administration has focused primarily on marijuana growers and suppliers, including the 55 "dispensaries" -- otherwise known as pot clubs or buying collectives -- operating in California.
But federal authorities have raided individual homes and confiscated plants being grown for personal use in at least two recent cases, one in Herger's district, Sherer said. She estimated that 65,000 Californians are registered with private and county-run programs as users of marijuana for medical treatment.
"So even though the message coming out of Washington is that they're going after the dispensaries, what's going on on the ground is quite different," she said. Sherer said that 45 people have been arrested in California on federal charges for activities that are legal under California law.
Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who has described himself as a libertarian Republican, co-sponsored the July appropriations bill amendment, which would have asserted states' rights to decriminalize marijuana.
News reports at the time described him as "choking up" as he defended the amendment in a floor speech detailing his mother's fight against cancer and the relief marijuana might have afforded her. The bill, however, failed in a 273-152 vote.