Three Senators Are Finally Pushing to End the Federal Ban on Medical Marijuana

CJ Ciaramella, Vice

On Tuesday, for the first time ever, legislation that would liberalize federal medical marijuana laws was introduced in the US Senate, proposed by a trio of bipartisan lawmakers in what activists are heralding as a historic first for the legalization movement.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with Democratic Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States, or CARERS Act, at a Capitol Hill press conference. The legislation would amend federal law to allow states to set their own policies on medical marijuana, and allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to military veterans.

The legislation would also change the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's classification of weed from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance, opening up opportunities for expanded study of the drug and its effects. Currently, marijuana research is tightly by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, the country's only supplier of marijuana to scientists in the country. Critics have long complained that NIDA blocks or drags its feet on applications from researchers interested in looking at possible benefits of the drug.

Recently, however, there has been a thaw. In January, the federal government finally approved a long-delayed study on the potential use of marijuana as treatment for PTSD. Mike Leszewksi, director of government affairs for Americans For Safe Access, said the new Senate bill could push the number of marijuana suppliers for medical research up to three.

The legislation would also open up the banking system for marijuana businesses, giving"safe harbor" to banks and credit unions who provide service to legitimate marijuana firms. Right now, banks and other financial firms are mostly off-limits to the burgeoning legal weed industry, leaving business owners to conduct most transactions in cash. "I just came back from Colorado," Paul told reporters Tuesday, "and the biggest thing people are asking me is we want banking to be legal. My guess is that even more taxes will be paid if they're allowed to keep their money in banks instead of brown bags"

Modeled on some smaller amendments and bills introduced in previous sessions of Congress, the legislation is the product of several months of behind-the-scenes work between Paul, Booker, Gillibrand, and several weed advocacy groups, including Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and Americans for Safe Access.

"This is a significant step forward when it comes to reforming marijuana laws at the federal level," Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. "The vast majority of Americans support laws that allow seriously ill people to access medical marijuana. Several marijuana policy reform bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives. The introduction of this legislation in the Senate demonstrates just how seriously this issue is being taken on Capitol Hill."

The measure faces an uncertain fate in Congress, where GOP leaders have mostly resisted efforts to ease up on the drug war. In the Senate, the new bill is likely to move through the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration's hands-off approach to legal pot in Colorado and Washington.

At the press conference Tuesday, the bill's three sponsors made a hard sell to their colleagues and the public, bringing in medical marijuana patients to drive home an emotional message. "I dare any senator to meet these patients here and say they don't deserve the medicine their doctors have prescribed," Gillibrand said.

Sandy Faioli, a wheelchair-bound New Jersey resident diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, said she used marijuana to treat insomnia and nausea. "I didn't sleep for about four years," she told reporters Tuesday. "Then I remembered that the reason I didn't smoke in college was because it made me go to sleep. So I picked some up and tried it. The next thing I knew, it was morning. I cried when I woke up."

The common thread among the advocates' stories was a desire to be free from the fear that they would face federal prosecution for seeking medical marijuana. Kate Hinz, whose daughter suffers from a rare disorder that afflicts her with about 100 seizures a day, talked about other parents of epileptic children who'd moved to Colorado to obtain cannabinoid oil for treatment—"marijuana refugees," she called them. T.J. Thompson, the Navy veteran, introduced himself as a "father, husband, employee and a criminal in the Commonwealth of Virginia."

"I'm also a criminal in the United States of America, the county I decided to volunteer six years of my life to stand up and fight for freedom and the pursuit of happiness," he said.

Regardless of whether it passes, the legislation is a sign that the legalization movement is becoming increasingly difficult for politicians, even in the insulated Senate, to ignore, said Don Murphy, a former Republican state lawmaker from Maryland who is now an analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and four states, plus DC, have voted to legalize the drug for recreational use. As the 2016 campaign season approaches, Murphy added, the issue is likely to become a staple of the national political debate.

"The timing is just perfect," said Murphy "It raises the issue in the presidential election, and for Republicans, it's now beyond just a states' rights issue. This legislation is going to go before a bunch of Republicans who are running—Paul, Cruz, Rubio—and they're all going to have to vote on it."