Senate Bill Would Effectively End The Federal War On Medical Marijuana

03/10/2015 01:37 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015

A sweeping Senate bill introduced Tuesday seeks to significantly roll back the federal government's war on medical marijuana.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), seeks to drastically reduce the federal government's ability to crack down on state-legal medical marijuana programs and encourage more research into the plant through several major changes in federal law.

"This bill that we are introducing seeks to right decades of wrong," Booker said Tuesday. "Doctors and patients deserve federal laws that are fair and compassionate, and states should be able to set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference. I am thankful to Senators Gillibrand and Paul as well as the Drug Policy Alliance for their hard work on this common-sense bill to make medical marijuana accessible to the millions of Americans who could benefit from it."

"Today," Booker added, "we join together to say: Enough is enough."

The senators were joined by patients and their family members including Kate Hintz and her daughter Morgan, who Kate said had a seizure as Gillibrand spoke at Tuesday's press conference.

"As the mother of a child with a severe seizure disorder, anxiously waiting to get access to a medication that is already helping thousands of others is unbearable," said Hintz, a New York resident who has advocated for legalizing the use of CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, which can be used to treat epilepsy and seizures for her daughter and others. "Let's end the fear and stigma associated with marijuana, and instead allow this bill to provide research, medicine, and long needed relief to so many. It cannot come fast enough, especially for my daughter."

Here's an overview of the most significant changes in the legislation:

Protection From Federal Prosecution

One of the most significant goals of the bill is to allow for patients, doctors and businesses to participate in their states' medical marijuana programs without fear of being prosecuted by the federal government, which continues to ban the substance in all forms.

Under this new legislation, the Controlled Substances Act would be amended so that states can set their own medical marijuana policies. It would make clear much of the legal gray area that exists between federal guidance, congressional intent and state laws on medical marijuana -- not by forcing states to legalize medical marijuana, but by protecting the states that do decide to legalize.

Despite the programs currently in place in states that have legalized marijuana in some form -- the sale, possession, production and distribution of marijuana all remain illegal under federal law. For years, the states that have legalized marijuana have seen an aggressive crackdown under the Obama administration, with hundreds of raids on dispensaries in places such as California and Colorado, many of which were operating in compliance with state law. The states that have legalized have only been able to do so because of federal guidance urging prosecutors to refrain from targeting state-legal marijuana operations.

To date, 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana and 12 others have legalized the limited use of low-THC marijuana for medical purposes. The state laws and people acting in compliance with them would be protected by this bill.

Reclassifying Marijuana As A Less Dangerous Substance

Under the Controlled Substances Act, the U.S. has five categories for drugs and drug ingredients. Schedule I is reserved for what the Drug Enforcement Administration considers to have the highest potential for abuse and no medical value. Marijuana has been classified as Schedule I for decades, alongside other substances like heroin and LSD.

This legislation would reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug -- a classification for less dangerous drugs that have an accepted medical use. Rescheduling marijuana would, in essence, be the federal government's first acknowledgement that the drug has medical benefits.

While the reclassification of marijuana would not make it legal under federal law, it could ease restrictions on research.

Completely Descheduling Low-THC Strains Of Marijuana

The strength of a strain of marijuana is generally measured by the percentage of THC, the plant's main psychoactive ingredient. Yet there are multiple strains with little to no THC, but with high levels of CBD, or cannabidiol, a compound found in marijuana that has medical value but does not produce the "high" sensation associated with THC.

While more than two dozen states have broad medical marijuana laws that allow for the cultivation, production and distribution of medical marijuana, 12 states have very narrow legalization of these low-THC strains of marijuana for limited medical use. Because these low-THC states generally don't allow for regulated sales or cultivation of the plant, patients are forced to seek out marijuana from a source like the black market, or from another state with more relaxed laws that allow out-of-state patients to purchase medical marijuana. Even so, transporting marijuana across state lines remains illegal, leaving patients in a bind.

This bill would remove marijuana with less than 0.3 percent THC from the CSA's schedules altogether, allowing states to import low-THC/high-CBD strains for patients that need it.

Banks Could Work With Medical Marijuana Businesses

Legal marijuana, both medical and recreational, is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., and the vast majority of the industry's more than $1 billion in annual revenue is brought in by state-legal medical marijuana programs.

But because of banks' fears of being implicated as money launderers, marijuana-related businesses are often forced into cash-only transactions, putting retailers' safety at risk and creating problems with taxes and employee payroll. Despite the Treasury Department's 2014 guidance, which supporters hoped would ease interactions, most banks are still extremely wary of working with marijuana businesses since the plant remains illegal under federal law.

The legislation would expand banking access for medical marijuana businesses, enabling them to function largely like traditional businesses.

Open Up Avenues For Research On The Plant

Getting the federal government to sign off on a marijuana study is exceedingly difficult, and two of the most stifling federal barriers to marijuana research would be lifted under this new legislation.

Currently, all marijuana research must go through a Public Health Service review -- a process established in 1999 by the federal government after a 1998 Institute of Medicine report called for more scientific research into the medical value of marijuana.

It's a process that no other Schedule I substance is subject to and one that researchers and lawmakers alike have criticized for thwarting research.

That extra step would be removed entirely under the Senate bill.

But the bill would go further by also ending the federal monopoly of marijuana for research purposes.

Part of the lack of cannabis science in the U.S. has to do with the federal stranglehold on marijuana research. There's only one federally legal marijuana garden in the U.S., at the University of Mississippi. The National Institute on Drug Abuse oversees the operation, and it's the only source of marijuana for federally sanctioned studies on the drug.

Federal authorities have long been accused of funding only marijuana research that focuses on the potential negative effects of the substance. The DEA has also been accused of not acting quickly enough when petitioned to reschedule marijuana, and for obstructing science around the drug.

The Senate bill would allow for no less than three other licensed sources for research-grade cannabis, a move that could provide a significant boost to unlocking the medical promise of the plant.

Easier Access For Veterans

Currently, doctors working under the Department of Veterans Affairs are prohibited from aiding their patients who are seeking medical marijuana, even in states where it is legal.

This legislation would lift that ban and allow for VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients suffering from certain conditions, where it is legal to do so under state law.

The CARERS Act has the support of more than 20 high-profile policy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Safe Access, Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

"This comprehensive proposal would effectively end the war on medical marijuana and let states compassionately provide care for seriously ill people without the federal government standing in the way," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum."

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