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New York Senator Sponsors Federal Marijuana Law Reform

Three Senators Offer Chamber’s First Broad Marijuana Reform Bill

An unusual group of three Senators — lead sponsor Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) and potential presidential hopeful Rand Paul (R-KY) — with a March 10 joint press conference announced introduction of a far-reaching marijuana law reform bill, the first of its kind offered in the Senate.

Flanked by several medical marijuana users, the trio argued S. 683, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act, or CARERS Act, was needed to eliminate federal restrictions on medical marijuana where it is legal under state law (currently 23 states and the District of Columbia). According to Sen. Booker, the bill would “right decades of wrong” and abolish unneeded marijuana laws. The sponsors said their political diversity was proof of medical marijuana’s growing acceptance.

Protection for New York State Marijuana Users

The CARERS Act, its sponsors assert, brings federalism principles to drug policy by shielding from federal prosecution medical marijuana users in states that have authorized its use. Although the Obama administration in 2013 issued a directive advising federal prosecutors not to bring cases against persons properly using medical marijuana where it is lawful, the bill’s backers note that policy could be changed at any time, unless it’s written into federal law. Further, said Sen. Booker in his statement on introducing the bill, despite the administration’s stated policy, the Drug Enforcement Agency continues to target individual medical marijuana users in states allowing that use.

The bill would effectively lift the long-standing federal ban on marijuana by reclassifying it from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (for drugs with no valid medical use and a high risk of misuse, like heroin or LSD), and instead put it in Schedule II (for drugs with recognized medical uses, despite risks of misuse, such as methamphetamines or cocaine).

Legal US bank accounts for legitimate marijuana businesses

Other sections of the 10-page bill would provide “safe harbor” protections against federal sanctions for banks and other financial institutions, in an effort to make them more willing to deal with legitimate marijuana businesses. The bill would also allow Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe cannabis for veterans in states where medical marijuana is permitted.

Another provision would permit states to import cannabidiol (CBD), a marijuana-derived oil virtually free of the THC intoxicant chemical, and which some doctors believe can bring relief for intractable epileptic seizures (though the Food and Drug Administration recently warned CBD sellers not to make medicinal claims for their products). Finally, the bill calls for revamping the current federal guidelines on marijuana research and issuing three licenses for producing marijuana and derivatives for FDA-approved research.

Legislative outlook for the CARERS Act

Despite the unprecedented Senate bill, the measure is not seen as likely to gain quick action. S. 683 has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and none of its three sponsors serves on that panel. In addition, Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) has voiced opposition to removing marijuana from Schedule I, although he says he would welcome additional medical research.

The three original sponsors of S. 683 say they will lobby their colleagues to attract additional backers. While the bill faces long odds, it will be interesting to see if it can lure other sponsors.

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