Unlikely Trio of Senators Forms Like Voltron to Revise Federal Pot Laws

Senators Gillibrand, Booker, and Paul want to stop federal interference with states that make medical marijuana legal.
Senators Gillibrand, Booker, and Paul want to stop federal interference with states that make medical marijuana legal.
Credit: Marijuana Policy Project

On Tuesday, senators from both sides of the aisle stumped for a new bill that could drastically change the United States' confusing relationship with medical marijuana.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand stood alongside Kentucky Republican Rand Paul and New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker to promote the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States, or "CARERS," Act.

The wide-reaching bill would:

• Repeal federal prohibition of medical marijuana, closing loopholes that can leave marijuana-related entrepreneurs who follow state laws at risk of federal prosecution;

• Allow federally insured banks to fund marijuana-related businesses;

• Repeal a current ban on medical marijuana prescriptions from Veterans Affairs hospitals; and

• Make marijuana a Schedule II instead of Schedule I controlled substance.

"There's still a lot that's unknown. We actually can't do the studies to see if it's a good treatment or a bad treatment [for certain conditions]," Senator Paul said, explaining that making marijuana a Schedule II substance would ensure easier access for scientists. "With Schedule I, it's virtually impossible. It's just too hard."

Gillibrand agreed, pointing to the harsh prohibitions on cannabis as compared to relatively lax regulations on opiate derivatives like methadone and OxyContin. "Going to smoke in an opium den is not legal, but the drug can be analyzed...and prescribed as codeine and other drugs people have access to when they have pain," she said.

According to sources who spoke with the Washington Post, the bill will also "reclassify the drug in the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Administration."

The number of states that have legalized medical marijuana has grown to twenty-three, along with Washington, D.C., and twelve have legalized cannabidiol, a hemp oil that offers medical benefits without the high. However, federal laws against the plant can leave growers, dispensary operators, and even doctors in dicey legal territory.

In 2014, the Boston Globe reported on DEA officials who targeted pro-medical-marijuana physicians in Massachusetts with the ultimatum to "sever all ties to marijuana companies, or relinquish federal licenses to prescribe certain medications." And later that year, the DEA raided two Los Angeles outlets of a dispensary called the Farmacy. "We are completely in the dark as to why this happened," a Farmacy manager told the Huffington Post. "We are completely 100 percent state-compliant and we pay our taxes."

Michael Collins, of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, says the new measure will clear up those distinctions between state and federal law by repealing national prohibition of the drug for medical purposes. "Right now, growers and dispensary owners are open to prosecution," he says. "This bill will take a step in ending that criminalization."

The trio of Gillibrand, Booker, and Paul seems unlikely, but the Democratic East Coasters have worked with the gun-loving Kentucky libertarian before. Booker and Paul sponsored a previous amendment to a Senate jobs bill — a measure to prevent the DEA from arresting patients or providers in states where marijuana was legal.

And in 2013, Paul co-sponsored Gillibrand's "Military Justice Improvement Act," which would have allowed sexual assault in the military to be prosecuted by a federal civilian court.

For advocates like Collins, the bill's unique combination of supporters — legislators from opposite ends of the political spectrum — offers hope that legal access to the drug is not too far away.

"These senators have a national profile," he says. "These guys are household names...there's a real sense that this is inevitable now: We need to end federal prohibition of marijuana and let states make their own decisions."

You can watch the full press conference here:

In the video, you'll see T.J. Thompson, an Army veteran from Virginia who takes medical marijuana for clinical depression, applauding the bill. He called it a "monumental step forward" on what he considers to be a First Amendment issue.

"Veterans are censored from speaking openly to their doctors about their treatment options," said Thompson, a spokesman for Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access who uses medical marijuana to combat "suicidal and homicidal thoughts."

Currently, doctors in Veterans Affairs hospitals are not allowed to prescribe medical marijuana even in states where the drug is legal. "Veterans have volunteered to protect our rights and freedoms that made this country great," he said. Now, he added, it was time for lawmakers to "respect our rights to heal."

The bill in full is on the next page.


Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act


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