When I first opened the D.C. office for Americans for Safe Access (ASA) in 2006, to bring representation of medical marijuana patients to our nation’s capitol, I was told by many it was not worth the effort. A quick skim of the political landscape back then showed we would be facing a steep slope. Sure, twelve states had passed medical marijuana laws and 80% of Americans supported medical cannabis access, but the federal government refused to admit that medical cannabis patients existed. The talking points from federal agencies were always “there is no such thing as medical marijuana,” and most members of Congress were paralyzed by fears of backlash or were dug into to refer madness.
Flash forward 9 years…(and $500,000, 000 dollars of anti-medical cannabis federal enforcement later) and for the first time, we have comprehensive medical marijuana legislation in both the U.S. House and Senate. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS) Act of 2015 is the most comprehensive piece of federal medical marijuana legislation ever introduced in the U.S. Congress. The bipartisan act is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and, in the House of Representatives, by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK).
This important bill would remedy the state-federal conflict over medical marijuana law, with far-reaching impacts, including:
- Allowing state programs to continue without federal interference
- Moving marijuana out of the Schedule I list
- Removing CBD from the scheduling
- Creating access to banking services for legal marijuana businesses
- Ending the DEA-Imposed NIDA monopoly that blocks research
- Allowing Veterans Affairs doctors to write recommendations in states that have a medical marijuana program.
Nine years ago, even I might have been pessimistic about passing a comprehensive marijuana reform bill through Congress. But, as previously impossible victories keep mounting I am confident we can do this.
Here’s why (not in any particular order):
1. Congress Passes “Ceasefire” Amendment in the Federal War on Medical Marijuana (with Bigger Majorities Each Year)
For 18 years, the federal government wasted millions of dollars interfering with state medical marijuana laws. Last year, with the passage of the Rohrabacher-Farr medical cannabis amendment to the CJS appropriations bill, we were able to win a full vote in the House of Representatives by a margin of 219-189 to end this pointless waste of resources. The amendment essentially barred the Department of Justice from spending money to target medical marijuana patients and providers who are following state law. However, being an appropriations amendment, it needs to be reauthorized every year.
When the House of Representatives voted on Rohrabacher-Farr medical cannabis amendment in June of this year, it passed with an overwhelming margin of 242 to 186. Later in June under Senator Mikulski’s leadership, the Senate Appropriations Committee also voted for an amendment with the language of Rohrabacher-Farr medical cannabis amendment by a vote of 21-9. On both sides of the hill, members of the Republican and Democratic parties are saying they want the federal government to leave state-level medical marijuana programs alone.
2. 40 States (Including Texas and Oklahoma) Have Passed Medical Marijuana Laws
To date, 40 states have passed laws that allow for the medical use of marijuana in some form. With 275 million Americans living in states where medical cannabis is a treatment option, it’s simply impossible to deny that federal laws are drastically out of line with the will of the people and patients as well as their medical professionals across the country who have come to realize the value of medical marijuana and demand their state legislators pass laws to provide access.
3. The Head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse Says It’s Time to Let More Places Grow Marijuana for Research
For years the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been the only organization that grows marijuana for researchers. Despite researchers saying this practice undermines their work, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has refused to issue licenses to other research centers. At a hearing last month NIDA head Nora Volkow indicated that she also supported letting other research centers grow marijuana. At this point it’s only a matter time before the DEA mandated NIDA monopoly on producing marijuana is a thing of the past.
4. The Drug Czar Removes Unnecessary Burden to Medical Marijuana Research
Last month the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced they had lifted the Public Health Service (PHS) review on marijuana research projects. The PHS review was originally meant to facilitate marijuana research, but in practice has slowed research projects by years and without a doubt has deterred countless researchers. Like other reforms that weren’t possible in years past, removing the PHS review happened with little to no controversy.
5. Organ Transplant Protection Passes with Huge Margins in California
One of our top priorities at ASA has been passing organ transplant protection in California. California has the nation’s largest medical marijuana program, but sadly doesn’t do enough to protect patients from civil discrimination. Because of outdated policies that lack any scientific justification, patients in California and elsewhere have been routinely removed from organ transplant waiting lists. Earlier this month Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 258, which will end organ transplant discrimination in California. The California Assembly passed AB 258 by a margin of 52-8, which was followed by the Senate passing AB 258 by an even more overwhelming margin of 31-1. There is still a lot of work to be done to end civil discrimination against medical marijuana patients, but votes like these, including the passage of AB 258, show that politicians from diverse ideological backgrounds are willing to vote protect law-abiding patients.