Game-Changing Marijuana Bill Would Loosen Federal Law

A bipartisan trio of senators that includes a presidential candidate has introduced landmark marijuana legislation that would change decades-old federal law. The senate bill would make cannabis more available for medical use in states where some form of marijuana use is already legal, and allow veterans and researchers access to marijuana. The bill is co-sponsored by high-profile senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). Paul has declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and Gillibrand and Booker are both viewed as rising young stars in the Democratic Party. “Senators Booker, Paul and I agree that it’s time to modernize our laws and recognize the health benefits of medical marijuana,” Gillibrand said. A companion bill was introduced March 24 in the House of Representatives by congressmen Don Young (R-AK) and Ted Cohen (D-TN) that is also expected to have party-crossing support.

“Enough Is Enough”

“Today we join together to say enough is enough,” Booker said March 10 in a joint news conference announcing the senate bill. “Our federal government has long overstepped the boundaries of common sense, fiscal prudence, and compassion with its marijuana laws.” While the bill may have support from Congressional members of both parties, there remains steadfast concern about legalizing marijuana, particularly for non-medical use. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma have sued neighboring Colorado on grounds that its retail marijuana law is costing those states financially and overburdening their law enforcement. And a national organization called Safe Streets Alliance, a Washington D.C., advocacy group, has recently filed a federal court lawsuit against Colorado seeking to end retail marijuana sales on grounds that those state laws violate existing federal law. Brian Barnes, an attorney representing Safe Streets, said that, were the bills to pass, “It’s not going to have an effect on our lawsuit, because ours only targets recreational marijuana.”

Disagreement on Marijuana’s Value

Public opinion polls show a liberalizing view of marijuana use for established medicinal purposes, including treatment of millions of veterans, some of whom report pot relieves their PTSD symptoms. But marijuana would hardly be called safe for everyone. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) causes symptoms of psychosis, anxiety and depression and may aggravate existing psychiatric disorders. While it’s considered less addictive than alcohol or tobacco, addiction-treatment doctors say patients may develop psychological dependence on marijuana. The senate bill does not legalize marijuana under federal law but effectively defers to state law. In remarks on his website, Paul said the bill, called the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS) would “fundamentally change our nation’s drug policies and have a positive impact on the lives of our Veterans and children.” In the Republican presidential hopeful’s views, the act would do this by:

  • Amending the Controlled Substances Act to permit states to set policy on the use of medical marijuana. Consequently the citizens of the 23 states and the District of Columbia where marijuana is legal in some form would no longer be at risk of federal prosecution for prescribing, selling or using it for medical reasons.
  • Removing marijuana from the federal government’s list Schedule I drugs — those considered not only the most dangerous but having no medical applications — and place it in Schedule II, alongside substances ranging from cocaine and methamphetamine to Ritalin. While Schedule II drugs are also considered “dangerous,” they’re also defined by the act as having “less abuse potential than Schedule 1 drugs.
  • Allowing some forms of the epilepsy treatment cannbidiol (CBD) to escape being defined as marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act.
  • Permitting Department of Veterans Affairs physicians to prescribe marijuana to veterans who live in states where medical marijuana is legal.
  • Lifting limits on the production and use of marijuana for scientific research.
  • Making it legitimate for banks and other financial institutions to service marijuana-related businesses, as long as those cannabis operations are following state law.

Nonpartisan and Non-Controversial?

“The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum,” Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, told CBS News. The senators introduced the bill with the backing of a score of health and public policy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and NY Physicians for Compassionate Care.

Support From Across the Aisle

Since introduction of the CARERS on March 10, a senator from each side of the aisle has signed on to co-sponsor it. The next day, Nevada Republican Dean Heller gave his backing to the bill, saying in a statement, “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 gave her backing on March 17.

Senator Dianne Feinstein Weighs In

But California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, expressed skepticism about the legislation because of her concern about the varying potency of marijuana products. “I think the federal law is another thing and, you know I just hate to see this because there’s marijuana, then there’s marijuana,” the Democrat told Roll Call. The newspaper also quoted Chairman Charles Grassley of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel through which the bill would have to pass, as seeing other issues taking higher priority. By Nancy Wride Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride

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