Senate bill would revolutionize medical marijuana

Federal recognition of cannabis' benefits

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A bill introduced by a surprising trio of senators aims to legitimize medical marijuana at the federal level. And that would be a major development.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which was unveiled Tuesday, would strengthen medical marijuana laws within states where the drug is already legal through limiting federal government interference, downgrade marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug countrywide and allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe the drug in legalized states.

Currently a Schedule I drug, marijuana is in the same class as heroin and LSD. Moving it down a class would be the first time that the government acknowledged cannabis’s medicinal qualities.

The bill would be a huge departure from the federal government’s position on marijuana since the 1970s: A drug with no medical benefits whatsoever.

At this point 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana.

The bill itself is being promoted by strange bedfellows: Democratic Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, along with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. The three rarely see eye to eye yet – surprisingly enough -- they’ve found common ground on weed. Cue the irony.

“We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose—recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows,” Sen. Booker said at a press conference.

Sen. Paul lamented unnecessary government interference in his reasoning for supporting the legislation.

“For far too long, the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana and have prohibited Americans from receiving essential care that will alleviate their chronic pain and suffering,” he said.

But at least one political expert says the trio’s support of medical marijuana isn’t as shocking as it may seem at first.

“These are three fairly prominent U.S. Senators all of whom to some extent or the other have some presidential ambitions. These are people who have profoundly high and rising profiles who are not afraid of this issue and who are embracing it,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “No longer is marijuana legalization policy reserved for fringe elected officials or people nearing the end of their career who are saying, ‘hey let’s do this’, these are people who have a future at stake and they don’t think a liberal policy on marijuana risks that future.”

While the Senate bill is unprecedented in nature and backed by similar House bills introduced last month—it remains highly unlikely that it will pass in a Republican controlled Congress. A majority of the American public supports legalization of marijuana across the board—recent polling pits the number at 52 percent—but those opposed are largely right leaning.

“I think the leadership in the House and Senate, with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, they are not sold on the idea that this does not carry with it tremendous political risks,” Hudak said. “For a lot of Republicans the only part of the American electorate who is really powerfully against marijuana policy is elder white voters. And that’s a big part of the Republican coalition right now, particularly in Congress, so that fear that they are going to alienate a part of their base is a legitimate one.”

Nevertheless, many medical marijuana advocates and policy groups view the bill as a victory. Whether the legislation passes or not, the message its existence pushes is still a strong one—that some members of Congress support their effort and that a push for legalization, either medically or recreationally, is amounting to more support on all levels.

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