U.S.: Senators Introduce Sweeping Bipartisan Medical Marijuana Bill To Protect Patients
Hundreds of patient advocates will gather in Washington, DC on March 31 to lobby for passage of Senate bill
By Steve Elliott
Comprehensive medical marijuana legislation was introduced Tuesday in the U.S. Senate for the first time in the nation's history.
Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act to end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana and allow states to set their own policies. The CARERS Act is endorsed by several advocacy groups including Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which helped Senate authors develop the legislation.
The CARERS Act will reclassify marijuana for medical use, overhaul the banking laws so as not to punish licensed businesses, allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, and eliminate current barriers to research.
Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have adopted medical marijuana laws, and another twelve states have adopted laws allowing for the consumption of a specific form of cannabis known as cannabidiol or CBD commonly used to treat seizure disorders.
Despite the passage of medical marijuana laws in more than half of the United States, it remains illegal under federal law. Because of this, qualified patients who use medical marijuana in compliance with state law are still at risk of federal enforcement, as are dispensary owners and government regulators.
Families with children suffering from severe epileptic seizures are forced to relocate or travel long distances to get treatment for their loved ones, and are vulnerable to arrest for doing so. Lawful medical marijuana businesses are currently prohibited from accessing banking services and forced to operate on a cash-only basis, causing numerous public safety issues.
Furthermore, veterans are routinely prevented from using medical marijuana in conjunction with PTSD or pain medication.
"The CARERS Act is groundbreaking for its unprecedented introduction by Senators Paul, Booker, and Gillibrand, for the scope of protection it would offer to qualified patients, and for significantly increased research opportunities," said Americans for Safe Access (ASA) Government Affairs Director Mike Liszewski. "We look forward to working with the U.S. Senate to ensure passage of this important legislation."
"This legislation is a game-changer," said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "It is worth noting that Senators with a national profile are championing this issue. Ending the war on medical marijuana is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do."
"Whether patients have safe access to medicine is a public health issue, not a criminal justice one," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.)., executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "If this bill passes many patients who could benefit from medical marijuana will no longer have to forego treatment for fear of arrest, be considered criminals for obtaining necessary medication, or put themselves in danger by accessing a dangerous unregulated market.
"We would never put underground drug dealers in charge of selling chemotherapy drugs or antidepressants, and we shouldn’t be putting them in control of marijuana either,” Franklin said.
“Several members of Congress, including several GOP presidential candidates, have said states should be able to determine their own marijuana laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "Sen. Paul is the only one who is not just talking about the problem, but also doing something about it. We applaud him, along with Sens. Booker and Gillibrand, for introducing legislation that would end the federal government’s war on medical marijuana patients and providers once and for all.
“Medical marijuana is an effective treatment for people suffering from a variety of debilitating conditions," Riffle said. "An overwhelming majority of Americans recognize its medical benefits and think the federal government has no business interfering in states that allow it, or obstructing research into its medical benefits.
“Resolving the tension between state and federal marijuana laws is a policy change that is long overdue," Riffle said. "This bill would improve public safety by allowing all marijuana businesses to access the banking system and no longer forcing them to operate on a cash-only basis. It also addresses important issues of tax fairness for those in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.”
“This is what we have waited for,” said Patients Out of Time president, Mary Lynn Mathre, RN, “a sweeping overhaul of the federal regulation of marijuana. We encourage the Congress to act swiftly to enact this measure so that all the citizens of the U.S. can benefit from the remarkable therapeutic properties of cannabis.”
“The states have done what they thought was best for their citizens but federal barriers have thwarted them at every turn,” Mathre said. “The need for federal reform is obvious and we applaud the Senators for moving this in the right direction.”
NCIA's Smith: 'Cannabis Does Not Belong On Schedule II'
“This is a major step forward for cannabis policy reform and the cannabis industry,” said National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) executive director Aaron Smith. “This bill would stop treating patients and their providers as criminals and respect the states and researchers who have recognized the immense potential of cannabis as medicine.
"In addition, cannabis-related businesses of all kinds would no longer face the dangerous and absurd situation of being denied basic banking services,” Smith said.
NCIA’s support of the legislation was not without reservation, however. The proposed legislation would place marijuana in Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), effectively putting its control in the hands of Big Pharma, and it would stop short of providing protections for individuals acting under state laws regulating marijuana for all adults.
“Marijuana does not belong in Schedule II,” Smith said. “To dictate that placement without conducting a proper analysis to determine the best schedule is not appropriate given the body of research that has determined cannabis is a safer substance than many over-the-counter medicines.
"We do not believe that cannabis is as harmful as other Schedule II substances like oxycontin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, and we are disappointed that this legislation suggests they are," Smith said. “That said, the Paul-Booker-Gillibrand legislation makes great strides toward compassionate access for patients in need and represents a saner approach to cannabis overall.”
Hundreds Expected To Gather In DC March 31 For Lobby Day
Hundreds of patient advocates are expected to gather in Washington, DC for a lobby day on Tuesday, March 31, as part of ASA's third annual Unity Conference. US Senators have never had to take a public position on medical marijuana issues, but the ASA lobby day focused on the CARERS Act will provide a unique opportunity for patient advocates to play a role in shaping those positions.
The CARERS Act is being introduced just months after Congress passed Section 538 of the Appropriations Act, a one-year spending provision that prohibits the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. This bill goes further by codifying that change and preventing any federal agency -- not just DOJ -- from interfering with the implementation of state laws.
The CARERS Act is a composite of current and soon-to-be-introduced House legislation. Specifically, the bill will amend the Controlled Substances Act to explicitly allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies without violating federal law.
The CARERS Act will reclassify marijuana from its current Schedule I status as a dangerous drug with no medical value to Schedule II. The bill will also change federal law to allow banks to provide financial services to licensed businesses, allow Veteran Affairs physicians to recommend medical marijuana to their patients, and enable CBD to be imported to states that have legalized its use.
Twelve states currently have laws allowing for some form of access to CBD, though these laws are not generally considered full “medical marijuana laws” because CBD as an extracted substance has fewer applications than medications using the whole plant. They remain attractive to some policymakers, however, because they exclude THC, a psychoactive but medically useful cannabinoid.
The CARERS Act will also remove bureaucratic barriers to research and break the current monopoly on the production of research-grade marijuana.
Graphic: Wellspring Collective