Steph Sherer (Op-Ed), Huffington Post

Medical marijuana patients just got a step closer to what we need, with the introduction yesterday of a historic medical marijuana bill in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) would finally end the federal government’s obstruction of state programs that protect the sick and suffering and end federal prosecution of those who participate in them.

Called the  Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, the Senate bill 683 would also move the federal classification of marijuana a step closer to a rationally defensible one.  The drug’s well-established safety profile and broad use in treatment should reassure lawmakers that it does not belong in the same category as cocaine and methamphetamine, but even placing cannabis in Schedule II could launch an exciting new era in American medical research.

Americans for Safe Access is honored to have helped bring a patient-focused perspective to shaping the bill, but as advocates for sensible medical marijuana policy that recognizes the reality that patients face, we are just getting started. This bill provides an opportunity for patients and advocates to be heard on this issue in the Senate as we never have been before. Outdated federal policy deserves a closer look.

Naysayers may scoff at the chances of such a change coming out of this Congress, but few believed the historic Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment that restricts the Department of Justice from spending tax dollars meddling with state medical marijuana implementation would pass last year. But it did, with broad bipartisan support.

Hundreds of patient advocates are expected to gather in Washington, D.C. for a lobby day on Tuesday, March 31 as part of ASA's third annual National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference. U.S. Senators have never had to take a public position on medical marijuana issues. Now they do, and the ASA lobby day focused on the CARERS Act will provide a unique chance for patient advocates to play a role in shaping those positions.

Our first step is to help get the bill heard before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Once there, we have work to do educating Senators on the emerging medical science, the established regulatory framework and the compassionate needs of patients. We can empower them to improve the bill.

For instance, the bill’s provision for completely removing cannabidiol (CBD) from the schedule of classified drugs would encourage more states to join the 12 that have laws allowing for the use and possession of that marijuana extract. But seven of those states allow CBD extracts to have more of the primary active ingredient in marijuana, THC, than the bill recognizes. ASA has already provided the Senate offices with language that would protect the patients in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia

The Senate sponsors have already heard ASA’s plea to remove the two biggest barriers to medical marijuana research in the U.S.: the Public Health Service Review Process and the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s monopoly on supplying research marijuana. This bill would eliminate the arduous PHS Review process, which can take years to navigate and dissuades many researchers from even trying. It would also end NIDA’s monopoly on marijuana for FDA-approved research.

At ASA and other advocate’s urging, the bill also includes key portions of Rep. Earl Blumenauer's HR 667, the Veterans Equal Access Act, which would allow Veterans Health Administration doctors to fill out the state forms veterans need in order to participate in state medical marijuana programs. Currently, VA doctors are banned from helping their patients with that.

The problems state-licensed medical marijuana businesses have with access to banking services would be resolved by a provision in the bill. Federal agencies could no longer penalize marijuana businesses by targeting their accounts for closure, requiring banks to file suspicious activity reports on them, or giving financial institutions incentives to discriminate against them.

This new bipartisan Senate initiative, championed by rising stars in both parties, presents a long-sought opportunity to thoroughly debate the outdated federal policies that have made criminals of Americans doing nothing more than following their doctor’s advice. With medical science and public opinion on our side, compassion can win out over the legacy of fear-mongering from the past century.