Sweeping New Marijuana Reform Bills Introduced In Congress

Marguerite Arnold, Main Street

March will stand in history as the month that Congress finally considered changing its tune on marijuana.  In mid-March, an odd political troika consisting of marijuana's superheroes on a national political level, introduced the most sweeping and comprehensive medical marijuana reform bill in the history of the U.S. Senate. The Batman and Robin team of Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who fronted DEA reform last year, were joined by Batgirl Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in co-sponsorship of the bill.

The House companion to the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States or so-called CARERS Act was introduced shortly thereafter by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Don Young (R-Alaska).

The legislation is expected to set a new tone for legalization discussions on Capitol Hill, where reform is now a hot button political issue and will be through at least the next presidential election.

According to Kris Hermes, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, a patients' advocacy group whose work is instrumental in forwarding this issue in Washington, D.C., this development is "unprecedented as the first comprehensive medical marijuana legislation ever introduced."

"After the House introduced a measure to ban interference by the Department of Justice in the implementation of medical marijuana laws, this legislation is the next logical step toward reforming the country's outdated drug policy," she added.

Industry spokesperson Taylor West was equally effusive. West advocates for the industry as the deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the largest trade organization for the burgeoning industry in the country.

"The biggest significance of the bill is that medical marijuana patients, providers, and businesses operating in states that have legalized medical marijuana at the state level would now be exempt from the Controlled Substances Act," West said. "Not only does that legalize their activities, but it also removes the tax burden of 280E for those businesses. In essence, it deschedules medical marijuana in states that have legalized it."

There are several aspects to this omnibus bill, all of which reflect aspects of reform that federal legislators can no longer ignore. Per Hermes, the CARERS Act is long overdue.

"Federal legislators are finally harmonizing their approach to widespread political will for medical marijuana reform in the US."

According to Marc Ross, an attorney at Sichenzia Ross Friedman Ference LLP, "Most importantly, it will take the government out of the doctor/patient relationship."

The change in the scheduling of marijuana will have huge downstream impact on many issues tied up in legalization. According to West, the move to Schedule II does open up additional avenues for federal research into the medical benefits of marijuana.

"The reasons by legislators to focus on the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) reflects the way in which the executive branch has addressed our country's drug policies for more than 40 years," she said. "The so-called War on Drugs has been waged almost entirely based on enforcement strategies and practices outlined in the CSA."

The methods of reform arguably begin with the CSA,  she said, including the reclassification of marijuana for medical use. That said, the legislation does address policy outside of the CSA. For example, the provisions addressing Veteran Affairs and banking protocol lie in different areas of federal law.

The rescheduling of cannabis will also have other impacts of great interest if not need in the business community.

"This would be a huge victory for the industry, ending the crisis caused by banks refusing to serve not only direct marijuana businesses, but also many businesses who simply serve the industry," West said.

One of the more interesting pieces of the statute is that it also legalizes the cross border sale of CBD and hemp, West said. The intent of that part of the bill is to allow patients in states that have legalized CBD for medical use but have not made it possible for CBD strains to be produced in-state, to access hemp-derived CBD products produced in other states.

The introduction of the bills in both chambers of Congress is being hailed as yet another victory in the newly energized push to end the Drug War on the federal level.

"All of these measures are designed to make the federal government respect the decision of states that have legalized medical marijuana," West said. "Ultimately, we at NCIA believe that same respect should be extended to states that have chosen a legal, regulated system for ALL marijuana, but this is a substantial step in the right direction."

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