A bipartisan group of senators and representatives has reintroduced legislation to protect patients in states where medical marijuana has been legalized.
The bill introduced Thursday is known as the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act. It would not legalize medical marijuana federally, but would amend federal law to officially allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies. Under the bill, Veterans Affairs physicians would be able to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients, which they are currently barred from doing.
The bill would prevent federal law enforcement from prosecuting patients, doctors and caregivers in states that choose to legalize medical marijuana.
The sponsoring senators are: Al Franken (D-Minn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah). The House version of the bill is sponsored by representatives Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Don Young (R-Alaska).
“Federal policy in this space has long overstepped the boundaries of common sense, fiscal prudence, and compassion,” said Booker in a statement. “This bill will help ensure that people who can benefit from medical marijuana – children, the sick, and our veterans – can do so without worrying about the federal government standing in the way.”
Young issued a statement of support, speaking to the problems faced by his constituents in Alaska, which has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana. “I’ve heard from my constituents who have experienced the many challenges associated with the conflicts between state and federal laws,” he said. “Including business owners who are prevented from using the banking system and tax code, veterans who cannot access alternatives to opioids, and even the state which has run into problems collecting tax revenues.”
At the press conference at the U.S. Capitol to announce the reintroduction of the legislation, medical marijuana patients were also on hand to offer their stories.
“Current law means that even though my family and I live in a state where medical marijuana is legal, my twins’ pediatrician can’t discuss what kind or how much they should take,” said Shannon Moore, of Maryland, who provides medical marijuana to her young twins to treat a rare, severe genetic disorder. It also means research is suppressed on this medicine despite what we know about its medical benefits,” Moore continued.
More than 20 health, veteran, and policy organizations have endorsed the bill, including the ACLU, Americans for Safe Access, Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Marijuana Policy Project, The American Cannabis Nurses Association, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, Veterans for Peace, and Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care.
Americans for Safe Access executive director Steph Sherer said in a statement, “With the only protection for these states set to expire with the federal budget in September, a permanent solution to this conflict is urgent and necessary.”
Smart Approaches to Marijuana expressed concern about what they see as a dangerous consequence of the bill. “No one wants to deprive chronically ill patients of medication that could be helpful for them,” SAM President Kevin Sabet said in a statement. “But… this bill would completely undermine the FDA approval process, and encourage the use of marijuana and marijuana products that have not been proven either safe or effective. The FDA approval process should set the standard for smart, safe, and sound healthcare in our country, so we can be sure that patients are receiving the best treatments that do more help than harm.”
Sabet continued, “Responsible legislation that fast-tracks these medications for those truly in need should be supported, rather than diverting patients to an unregulated CBD market proven to be hawking contaminated or mislabeled products as medicine, as this bill would endorse. We support the development of FDA-approved CBD medications, like Epidolex, which is in the final stages of approval.”
The CARERS Act was originally introduced in 2015, and was the first medical marijuana bill to be introduced into the U.S. Senate.
Medical marijuana is legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and 16 additional states have authorized cannabidiol oil for a narrow range of conditions. However, since cannabis remains illegal under federal law, doctors, patients, and dispensaries that provide medical marijuana are feeling increasingly fearful that they could be subject to federal prosecution.
CARERS Act provisions
Recognize States’ Responsibility to Set Medical Marijuana Policy & Eliminate Potential Federal Prosecution
The CARERS Act amends the Controlled Substances Act so that states can set their own medical marijuana policies. The patients, providers, and businesses participating in state medical marijuana programs will no longer be in violation of federal law and vulnerable to federal prosecution.
Allow States to Import Cannabidiol (CBD), a Recognized Treatment for Epilepsy and Seizure Disorders
The CARERS Act amends the Controlled Substances Act to remove specific strains of CBD oil from the federal definition of marijuana. This change would allow youth suffering from intractable epilepsy to gain access to the medicine they need to control their seizures.
Provide Access to Veterans
Current law prohibits doctors in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities from prescribing medical marijuana. The CARERS Act would allow VA doctors in states where medical marijuana is legal to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans.
Expand Opportunities for Research
The CARERS Act removes unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles for researchers to gain government approval to undertake important research on marijuana and creates a system for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to encourage research.