A trio of bipartisan senators announced today the first medical marijuana legalization bill to be introduced into the Senate — a move that could pave the way for greater access to marijuana regardless of whether the bill passes, according to experts.
Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York will sponsor the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS Act), which will allow states that have medical marijuana laws on the books to operate without being in conflict with federal law, they said today at a joint press conference.
The bill also seeks to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug, making it more widely available for researchers to study its potential as a medicinal substance. It will also allow doctors affiliated with Veterans Affairs hospitals to prescribe marijuana for veterans, and will make it legal to traffic certain strains of medical marijuana across state lines for medical purposes.
Tony Newman of the National Drug Policy Alliance (NDPA), which helped draft the bill, said after the announcement that "the time has come, it's been a long time coming… This bill, is the first bill ever introduced in the US senate to legalize medical marijuana and is also the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill."
The NDPA hosted a conference call after the announcement in which advocates, veterans, parents of epileptic children who found help through medical marijuana, and medical marijuana business owners expressed support for the bill.
Katharine Neill, a fellow in drug policy with Rice University's Baker Institute, said the bill is an important step forward even if it doesn't pass Congress, because it shows the conversation around marijuana is starting to take place at the federal level.
"That the federal government is doing this — even if it doesn't pass, opening the conversation here is going to do a lot for the states that are considering passing bills, it might encourage some states to say look, the federal government is even considering this, we should look at this more closely. I'm optimistic it will expand the conversation at the state level if nothing else," Neill said.
Neill said she expects that the bill will face some resistance, particularly in the House, which was opposed to marijuana legislation in Washington, DC last year. Law enforcement agencies, including police unions, also tend to oppose marijuana reform laws and will likely spend money lobbying member of Congress to oppose it, she said.
The proposal in the Senate today comes after years of increasing acceptance of marijuana legalization across the country. More than 30 states now have legalized medical marijuana, and four have legalized all marijuana use for adults.
The federal government, until now, has remained mostly mum on the state-by-state marijuana debate. At the end of 2014, Congress blocked the Department of Justice (DOJ) from using taxpayer money to pursue charges for medical marijuana crimes in states where it had been legalized. The official move by Congress followed years of a similar practice by the DOJ, which in 2013 announced it would not prosecute individuals who grow or use small amounts of marijuana in states where it is legal, and would only pursue large-scale grows that were a threat to public safety.
Some federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), have been outspoken about their opposition to marijuana legalization, and may try to influence the debate in Congress, Neill said, though she was skeptical how much effect it would have.
"If anybody is standing in the way of classification it's [NIDA] or the DEA itself," Neill said. "People in the DEA are generally opposed to any drug reform at all, that's what the agency is built on, an anti-drug message, and it has invested a lot in that idea and to change and say marijuana is okay sometimes is going to be hard for some people to do."
Neill also pointed out that the DEA receives funding to pursue marijuana crimes, and wouldn't want to risk losing its resources.
"So there's also general concern that if we loosen laws on marijuana, it might end the drug war as we know it and we move toward another way, and that has major consequences for agencies like the DEA," she said.
Matt Barden, a spokesman for the DEA, said that the agency still treats marijuana as a schedule 1 drug and will continue to do so until that's changed by Congress or the FDA.
"We still believe marijuana is schedule 1 and should remain schedule 1," he said. "Everybody looks to the DEA as being the bad guys, like, you could just put it to schedule 2, if you wave a wand, but look at the strict guidelines the FDA has in place."
"Everybody screams at us, but if there's some quality that can help save somebody, we're all for that. But you can't also smoke it to get high and claim it's medicine. You can't be sitting on you front porch smoking," Barden said. "You can't have it both ways."