Although the Senate committee vote marks an advance in marijuana approval, the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule l drug with no medical benefits. As a result, feds cannot fund medical marijuana studies, and are prevented from legally endorsing medical marijuana’s use in the healthcare system.
Studies have shown that medical marijuana can help treat post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, illnesses typically suffered by veterans. A 2014 study of people with PTSD showed a greater than 75% reduction in severity of symptoms when patients were using marijuana to treat their illness, compared to when they were not.
A legislative version of the Daines-Merkley amendment was included in groundbreaking Senate medical marijuana legislation introduced in March. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act is the first-ever bill in the U.S. Senate to legalize marijuana for medical use and the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill ever introduced in Congress. The bill was introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and generated enormous interest.
With the Senate approving one element in the bill, supporters say it is time for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the full bill.
“The politics around marijuana have shifted in recent years, yet Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley hasn’t held a hearing on the bill,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We will move the CARERS Act piece by piece if we have to but now is the time for the Senate to hold a hearing on the bill as a whole.”
“Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated the same as any other resident, and should be able to discuss marijuana with their doctor and use it if it’s medically necessary,” Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance Michael Collins said in a press release. “They have served this country valiantly, so the least we can do is allow them to have full and open discussions with their doctors.”
Past surveys of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) members concluded 70 percent of respondents believes Congress has not adequately addressed veterans’ needs overall. Still, the push to legalize pot is gaining traction among Republicans and Democrats alike. For instance, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) supports the decriminalization of marijuana and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) believes the feds should be more open to medical marijuana research. Moreover, the majority of Americans say pot should be legalized, and most voters in three major swing states are pro-pot, which means presidential hopefuls may need to come out in favor of marijuana to win the next election.
Rep. Janice “Jan” Schakowsky [D-IL9] has signed on as a co-sponsor of the CARERS Act of 2015(H.R. 1538), also called the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act.
The bill’s full title explains that its purpose is “To extend the principle of federalism to State drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana.”
The bill, which was introduced in the House in March by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), now has 30 cosponsors (18 Democrats, 12 Republicans).
The full list of representatives to sign on in support of the bill (according the government’s website that tracks the bill) are:
- Young, Don [R-AK0] (joined Mar 23, 2015)
- Conyers, John [D-MI13] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Hanna, Richard [R-NY22] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Hunter, Duncan [R-CA50] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Lofgren, Zoe [D-CA19] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Nadler, Jerrold [D-NY10] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Norton, Eleanor [D-DC0] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Rohrabacher, Dana [R-CA48] (joined Mar 26, 2015)
- Amash, Justin [R-MI3] (joined Apr 13, 2015)
- Beyer, Donald [D-VA8] (joined Apr 13, 2015)
- Blumenauer, Earl [D-OR3] (joined Apr 13, 2015)
- Heck, Joseph [R-NV3] (joined Apr 13, 2015)
- DelBene, Suzan [D-WA1] (joined Apr 15, 2015)
- McClintock, Tom [R-CA4] (joined Apr 15, 2015)
- Jones, Walter [R-NC3] (joined Apr 22, 2015)
- Perlmutter, Ed [D-CO7] (joined Apr 22, 2015)
- Coffman, Mike [R-CO6] (joined Oct 1, 2015)
- DeFazio, Peter [D-OR4] (joined Oct 1, 2015)
- Deutch, Theodore [D-FL21] (joined Oct 1, 2015)
- Mulvaney, Mick [R-SC5] (joined Oct 1, 2015)
- Sanford, Marshall “Mark” [R-SC1] (joined Oct 1, 2015)
- Van Hollen, Chris [D-MD8] (joined Oct 1, 2015)
- Rice, Tom [R-SC7] (joined Nov 3, 2015)
- Visclosky, Peter [D-IN1] (joined Nov 3, 2015)
- Bordallo, Madeleine [D-GU0] (joined Dec 18, 2015)
- Gabbard, Tulsi [D-HI2] (joined Dec 18, 2015)
- Johnson, Henry “Hank” [D-GA4] (joined Dec 18, 2015)
- Lieu, Ted [D-CA33] (joined Dec 18, 2015)
- O’Rourke, Beto [D-TX16] (joined Dec 18, 2015)
- Schakowsky, Janice “Jan” [D-IL9]
The bipartisan legislation would allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies. While it would not legalize medical marijuana in any state, it would recognize a legitimate use for marijuana at the federal level (moving marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II of the controlled substance act) and allow Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend safe and effective marijuana-related treatments. The bill also would exclude cannabidiol from the definition of marijuana, would enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana and would allow access to banking services for marijuana-related businesses that are operating pursuant to state law.
H.R. 1538 is a companion bill to S.683
, also called the CARERS Act, which was introduced in the Senate in March by Senators Corey Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). S.683, which has 15 co-sponsors (including two Republicans), has been referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.
The CARERS Act is the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill ever introduced in Congress.
H.R. 1538 was referred to a Congressional committee March 23, where it has remained since. Despite the number of co-sponsors signing on in support of the bill, the prognosis for passing remains low. According to Congress’ website, it still has just a 1 percent chance of being enacted.
Dan Riffle, who at the time was the Director of Federal Policies for marijuana law reform organization Marijuana Policy Project (before leaving the organization
in December 2015), had told Cannabis Business Times
in October, “I think the reason for the low prognosis is that the bill has to go through the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, and the chairmen of each—Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia) in the House, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in the Senate—are staunch supporters of the war on drugs,” he said. “Both have been in Congress for decades and helped pass mandatory minimum sentencing bills and other punitive policies that contributed to the current mass incarceration problem. For them to acknowledge that arresting and prosecuting marijuana users hasn’t reduced marijuana use rates would be to admit they were wrong, which they’re unwilling to do,” he added.
“It’s unfortunate really. I’m a former prosecutor, and I’ve been encouraged to see so many people in the criminal justice system speak out to say that this is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue, especially when it comes to medical issues like marijuana for treatment of pain or cancer treatment symptoms as recommended by physicians. Grassley and Goodlatte either haven’t heard or refuse to listen to the message,” Riffle noted. “We’re quite confident we have majority support for the CARERS Act in both the House and the Senate, but Grassley and Goodlatte have so far refused to hold hearings on it despite broad bi-partisan backing.”
Taylor West, deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) also previously told Cannabis Business Times
, “I think the biggest factor in any bill’s relatively low likelihood of passage is the relatively low likelihood that Congress passes any bill at all.”
She dids, however, note that she thinks it’s “a genuinely good sign of progress that the CARERS Act continues to gain co-sponsors in both parties.”
The next step, she noted, “is pushing for the bill to get a hearing in the committee it’s been assigned to. The odds for that will increase as we’re able to attract co-sponsors who serve on that committee and put pressure on the committee chair to act. But it is definitely a slow process, especially when dealing with a committee chair who is not personally friendly to the cause.”
Despite what may be an uphill battle for the bill, West had said that she remained optimistic about the legislative progress that has been made so far in the fight to end prohibition. “Make no mistake, there’s been more progress on marijuana-related legislation in Congress in the last two years than we’ve seen in decades, but there’s still a hard road ahead of us,” she told Cannabis Business Times. “As more states open up to medical and retail cannabis, it’s absolutely imperative that people in the industry commit to the political advocacy efforts NCIA and others are making on the Hill.”