The bill, which activists describe as a first for the Senate, would end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana and implement a number of critical reforms that advocates of both medical and recreational marijuana have been seeking for years, according to several people familiar with the details of the proposal. It would reclassify the drug in the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Administration, allow for limited inter-state transport of certain medicines derived from cannabis, expand access to cannabis for research, and make it easier for doctors to recommend the drug to veterans and easier for banks to provide services to the industry.
“It’s the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill in Congress,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of several groups consulted for the bill. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act grew out of an amendment proposed last year by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
A number of activist organizations deeply involved with passing medical and recreational marijuana laws at the state level were consulted in drafting the bill, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, and Americans for Safe Access. And advocates say they are generally pleased with what they’ve seen and heard.
“It really is a comprehensive bill—it would effectively end the federal war on medical marijuana,” said Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority.
But the bill has its detractors. Dr. Kevin Sabet, president of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, says that while better research and non-smoked medications are necessary, the bill overreaches.
“It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut,” he said by e-mail. “Why not start work with scientists to incentivize research rather than open the floodgates to Big Marijuana? Most major medical organizations oppose smoked pot as medicine because the risks outweigh any benefits. This bill just isn’t supported by the science, plain and simple.”
The following are five of the bill’s key provisions, according to several people familiar with it.
- Under the bill, marijuana would be downgraded one level in the Drug Enforcement Agency’s five-category drug classification system. It is currently treated, along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, as a Schedule 1 drug—those deemed by the DEA to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The bill would reclassify it as a Schedule 2 drug, joining cocaine, OxyContin, Adderall and Ritalin.
- The bill would also make it easier to transport some forms of the drug between states. While medical marijuana is allowed in 23 states and D.C., another dozen states allow the drug on a much more limited basis. Those states typically allow restricted access to medicine derived from cannabis strains with low levels of THC, the drug’s primary psychoactive component, and high levels of CBD, which is believed to have medicinal benefits. But patients often have no way of accessing such drugs. The bill would therefore remove some CBD strains, used to treat epilepsy and seizure disorders, from the federal definition of marijuana.
- The bill would also make it easier for banks to provide services to the marijuana industry as they do to any other.
- It would reform the process by which private researchers can get access to medical marijuana.
- And it would allow doctors working for the Department of Veterans Affairs in states where medical marijuana is legal to recommend it for certain conditions.
The historic bill represents another in a long string of victories for marijuana advocates, who have seen voters legalize the drug for recreational use in four states since 2012: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Nearly half the states have legalized medical marijuana and the public support has been growing, with roughly half the nation supporting legalization according to several polls.
The political winds have been shifting, too. Three potential Republican presidential candidates—Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush—have come out in support of state legalization laws, though they’ve hedged on their personal support of such policies.