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Update: Medical Marijuana Legislation in US Senate

The Landmark Bill Has Now The Support of 15 Senators

By: Paul Armentano

senator Cory BookerSen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) believes that it’s time for federal lawmakers to “right decades of wrongs.” Speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference in March, he stated: “Our federal government has long overstepped the boundaries of common sense, fiscal prudence and compassion… Today we join together to say enough is enough.”

Joining Booker at the bill’s introduction in March were fellow Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who together announced the introduction of legislation to amend the classification and regulation of cannabis for therapeutic purposes. The measure—Senate Bill 683, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act—marks the first time that the U.S. Senate has taken up the issue of legalizing marijuana for medical use. (Congress enacted spending legislation in December similarly limiting the Justice Department from interfering in state-sanctioned medical marijuana operations, but it expires in September.)

The 10-page Senate bill seeks to permanently bar the U.S. government from prosecuting qualified patients, doctors and businesses that engage in state-sanctioned behavior involving the production, sale and use of medical cannabis. Separate provisions in the bill reschedule marijuana at the federal level, and remove the compound cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act altogether. Additional provisions allow for financial institutions to legally provide services to medical marijuana businesses; permit doctors affiliated with the Veterans Administration to authorize medical cannabis; and remove existing bureaucratic barriers that limit investigators from clinically studying the plant’s safety and therapeutic efficacy.

Sen. Gillibrand said she’s “hopeful” the measure will “gain significant support in the Senate,” while other proponents, including the Drug Policy Alliance, have speculated that the bill may successfully pressure the Obama administration to implement specific provisions, such as reclassifying cannabis and/or removing existing banking restrictions, via executive action.

Nevada Republican Dean Heller subsequently signed on as a co-sponsor, acknowledging, “The time has come for the federal government to stop impeding the doctor-patient relationship in states that have decided their own medical marijuana policies.” California Democrat Barbara Boxer is also co-sponsoring the bill.

House Representatives are also showing their support, with companion legislation, HR 1538, introduced by Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK).

Would passage of the CARERS Act sufficiently address the litany of federal roadblocks presently in place for medical cannabis patients and providers? As presently written—no. In particular, the reclassification of THC to Schedule II under federal law is unlikely to significantly improve patient access, and might inadvertently lead to even more regulatory restrictions.

Still, the CARERS Act is a necessary and long-overdue first step by Congress to align federal policy with available science and public opinion.

Along with the introductory sponsors – Booker, Paul and Gillibrand – the bill’s co-sponsors include: Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Tammy Balwin (D-WI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tom Udall (D-NM), Angus King (I-ME), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

Contact your members of Congress in support of the CARERS Act here: norml.org/act