Andrew Taylor

WASHINGTON: Libertarian-minded and moderate Republicans joined forces early Friday morning with Democrats in an early morning House vote to block the federal government from interfering with states that permit the use of medical marijuana.

The unusual coalition produced a surprising 219-189 vote in the GOP-controlled House that reflects more permissive public attitudes toward medical pot use. It ran counter to the drug’s official classification as holding “no currently accepted medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.”

Friday’s vote came as the House debated a bill funding the Justice Department’s budget. Forty-nine Republicans joined all but 17 Democrats who voted in approving a provision to block the Justice Department from interfering with state laws permitting the “use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana.”

The amendment by conservative GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California — the first state to legalize medical marijuana — came as almost half the states have legalized marijuana for medical uses, such as improving the appetites of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Other states permit the use of a non-psychoactive marijuana extract to treat epilepsy.

The measure doesn’t address the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes in Colorado and Washington, where voters have legalized it over objections from most elected officials. But it comes as the public is taking an increasingly permissive view toward medical pot use, particularly to help people suffering from chronic pain and nausea.

“Public opinion is shifting,” Rohrabacher said, noting a recent Pew Research Center survey that found 61 percent of Republicans support medical marijuana. The numbers are higher for independents and Democrats.