A bipartisan trio of Senators plan to unveil a medical marijuana reform bill today that would remove many of the federal barriers to states that want to implement medical marijuana regimes. The bill, sponsored by Senators Rand Paul, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, is being hailed as "historic" by drug policy reform organizations.

Over at GovBeat, Niraj Chokshi has a detailed rundown of the bill's provisions. They include:

  • Downgrading marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 of the Controlled Substances Act;
  • Ease some restrictions on transporting marijuana between states, which would expand access to medical marijuana to some patients in states that currently don't allow it;
  • Make it easier for banks to do business with the marijuana industry;
  • Direct the National Institute on Drug Abuse to broaden access to marijuana for research;
  • And allow doctors with the Dept. of Veteran's Affairs to recommend marijuana in the states that allow it.

A key point is that this bill wouldn't legalize medical marijuana per se. Rather, it amends many of the outdated federal policies that have prevented states from embarking on their own medical marijuana programs. As such, it represents a fundamentally modest package of reforms that would bring federal policy more closely in line with the recommendations of major medical organizations.

The American Medical Association, for instance, has recommended that "marijuana’s status as a federal schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines." The American Cancer Society "believes that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration imposes numerous conditions on researchers and deters scientific study of cannabinoids." It calls for federal officials to "examine options consistent with federal law for enabling more scientific study on marijuana." And the American Academy of Pediatrics has explicitly called for moving marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2.

The organizations' recommendations on medical marijuana are especially significant given that all three steadfastly oppose the full legalization of cannabis. From the medical community's standpoint, rescheduling the plant represents a reasonable middle-ground approach that would enable more research into marijuana's effects without opening the floodgates to legalization and potential widespread use. Several surveys of doctors have found broad support among them for medical marijuana.

The Senate bill would also help federal policy catch up with public sentiment. Large majorities of Americans have supported the use of medical marijuana for decades now. The most recent numbers show public support for medical marijuana approaching an astonishing 90 percent -- when's the last time 90 percent of the public agreed on anything? There are robust majorities in favor of medical marijuana even in the deepest of red states like Utah, where two thirds of voters supported a recent medical marijuana measure that ultimately failed to pass the state Senate by a single vote.

Most importantly, the Senate bill would bring federal and state policies into closer alignment on the question of medical marijuana. Currently 23 states plus the District of Columbia have medical marijuana programs in place. 146 million Americans -- 46 percent of the population -- now live in a state with some form of legalized marijuana. For these people, the gap between lived experience and federal law grows wider by the day.

The danger for federal authorities is that outdated laws that stand in opposition to science, medical research and public opinion will make scofflaws of us all. We are now closing in on two decades of real-world experience with medical marijuana at the state level, starting when California voters approved medical marijuana in 1996. And yet, despite opponents' dire warnings, California hasn't fallen into the ocean, the world hasn't ended, and the patchouli-scented apocalypse has failed to materialize. It's good news that Congress is finally starting to take notice.