Historic Medical Marijuana Bill Gains Momentum

03/24/2015 06:01 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2015
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A comprehensive bill introduced in the House of Representatives Tuesday aims to deal a significant blow to the federal government's long-running war on medical marijuana.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, introduced by Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Don Young (R-Alaska), is a House companion bill to identical Senate legislation from Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced earlier this month. Each bill seeks to drastically reduce the federal government's ability to crack down on state-legal medical marijuana programs and aims to encourage more research into the plant.

The historic Senate version of the bill has also gained traction with two new sponsors since its introduction: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

“The science has been in for a long time, and keeping marijuana on Schedule I -- with heroin and LSD -- is ludicrous," Cohen said in a statement Tuesday. "I am pleased to join with Congressman Don Young in introducing this important bill to bring the federal government in line with the science and the American people, respect states’ rights, remove the threat of federal prosecution in states with medical marijuana, and help our citizens access the treatments they need.”

Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a reform group, told The Huffington Post that the House version of the bill was introduced because "momentum is so strong" for the bipartisan CARERS Act.

"This has become one of the few issues Democrats and Republicans can agree on," Piper told HuffPost in an email. "The tide is quickly turning against marijuana prohibition, and the war on drugs in general; it's only a question of when, not if, reform will happen."

The bill calls for six major policy changes. Here's what it aims to accomplish:

Allow patients, doctors and businesses to participate in their states' medical marijuana programs without fear of being prosecuted by the federal government.

Under this legislation, the Controlled Substances Act would be amended so that states could set their own medical marijuana policies. It would clarify much of the legal ambiguity that currently 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 choose to do so.

The sale, possession, production and distribution of marijuana all remain illegal under federal law. The states that have legalized the drug in some form or another 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. All such state laws, and the people who act in compliance with them, would be protected by this bill.

Reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous substance, moving it from Schedule I to Schedule II.

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

This legislation would reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug -- a category for less dangerous drugs that have an accepted medical use. Rescheduling marijuana wouldn't make the drug legal under federal law, but such a move would essentially mark the federal government's first-ever acknowledgement that the plant has any medical benefits.

Give veterans easier access to medical marijuana.

Currently, doctors who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs are prohibited from helping patients acquire medical marijuana, even in states where it is legal.

This legislation would lift that ban and would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients suffering from certain conditions, where permitted by state law.

Nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2012 VA report. Some research has suggested that marijuana may help with PTSD symptoms, which can include anxiety, flashbacks and depression. A recent study found that PTSD symptoms in patients who used cannabis were reduced by an average of 75 percent.

Eliminate barriers to marijuana research.

Getting the federal government to sign off on a marijuana study is exceedingly difficult -- but two of the most prohibitive 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. No other Schedule I substance is subject to this process. That extra step would be removed entirely under the CARERS Act.

Secondly, federal authorities have long been accused of only funding 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 of obstructing research into the drug.

Currently, the federal government is the only institution authorized to grow research-grade cannabis. The CARERS Act would allow for no fewer than three additional licensed growers, a move that would end the federal monopoly on marijuana research and potentially hasten the discovery of new medical applications for the plant.

Remove low-THC strains of marijuana from the controlled substances list.

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

While nearly two dozen states have broad medical marijuana laws that allow for the cultivation, production and distribution of medical marijuana, another 12 states only make provisions for low-THC strains, and those only under certain circumstances. Because those states generally don't allow for the regulated sale or cultivation of marijuana, patients are forced to seek out the plant on 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.

The CARERS Act 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 who need it.

Open up banking for marijuana businesses.

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

Legal marijuana is already a billion-dollar industry. But because of banks' fears of being implicated as money launderers, marijuana-related businesses are often forced to be cash-only, putting retailers' safety at risk and creating problems with taxes and employee payroll. Despite Treasury Department guidance that supporters hoped would ease interactions, most banks are still extremely wary of working with marijuana businesses since the plant remains illegal under federal law.

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