Reintroduced CARERS Act Would Protect States' Rights, Medical Marijuana Patients

By Thomas Mitchell for Westword

Days after a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions surfaced, asking congressional leaders to revoke federal protections for medical marijuana, senators have introduced a bill that would protect medical marijuana patients in states where it's legal while also removing cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act and expanding research on marijuana.

Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Al Franken (D-Minnesota) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Arkansas) introduced the Compassionate Access Research and Respect the States (CARERS) Act on June 15. The bill would protect medical marijuana users from federal prosecution, allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans, and loosen multiple restrictions on cannabis research and medical compounds.

Another CARERS Act is expected to be submitted in the House of Representatives soon, according to advocacy group Marijuana Majority. Here's the initial bill:

To extend the principle of federalism to State drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana.

Booker, Gillibrand, Franken and Paul introduced a similar proposal with the same name in 2015, while Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) submitted the CARERS Act in the House. Although both received bipartisan sponsorship and support, neither made it out of committee. The new version of the CARERS Act doesn't ask for a rescheduling of cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II or protection for banks and financial institutions working with marijuana businesses, as previous proposals did.

“A permanent solution to the federal and state conflict is desperately needed for patients, doctors, and our economy. If state rights are not protected, over two million patients could be left with only the illicit market to find their medicine," Steph Sherer, executive director Americans for Safe Access, said in a statement. “With the only protection for these states set to expire with the federal budget in September, a permanent solution to this conflict is urgent and necessary.”

Donald Trump criticized Colorado's decision to legalize recreational marijuana during his 2016 campaign, but was publicly bullish on medical marijuana several times, too. Since Trump took office in January, though, Sessions and others, including spokesman Sean Spicer, have continued to scare the cannabis industry with disparaging statements on marijuana's medical benefits and its effect on America's war on drugs.

Sessions has publicly stated several times that marijuana is a dangerous drug, even telling Governor John Hickenlooper that marijuana is "unhealthy for the country" while not ruling out a future federal crackdown of commercial marijuana businesses, according to Hickenlooper.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared in Sessions's place before a Senate appropriations subcommittee on June 13 to talk about drug use; Sessions was unable to attend because he had to appear in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee to answer questions about alleged collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. "I’ve talked to Chuck Rosenberg, the administrator of the DEA, and we follow the law and the science," Rosenstein told the senators. "And from a legal and scientific perspective, marijuana is an unlawful drug. It’s properly scheduled under Schedule I. And therefore we have this conflict."

If passed, the CARERS Act would protect medical marijuana businesses more effectively than 2013's Cole Memo, the guideline issued by the Department of Justice under the Obama administration that protected marijuana businesses in legal states — the same guidelines that Sessions now appears to want to step over, if not erase altogether. Because the CARERS Act would be a federal law, the Justice Department would have no choice but to allow legal, rule-following medicinal pot businesses to operate without interference.

“A majority of states now have comprehensive medical marijuana laws on the books, and a supermajority of Americans support letting patients access cannabis without fear of arrest. It’s well past time for Congress to modernize federal law so that people with cancer, multiple sclerosis and PTSD don’t have to worry about Jeff Sessions sending in the DEA to arrest them or their suppliers," Marijuana Majority founder Tom Angell said in a statement.

Although Sessions's rhetoric against legal marijuana has been loud and clear, some in the industry see hope in the fact that Trump's children, specifically those in his advisory circle, support a state's right to legalize marijuana. "It's basically two sides — Sessions and the Trump children," one insider says. "The Trump children will likely be on the winning side."