There aren’t many issues that would unite Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), one of the most progressive Democrat senators from one of the bluest states, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), one of the most libertarian Republican senators from one of the reddest states. But they’ve teamed up for S. 683, the CARERS (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States) Act, which would reshape the status of medical marijuana in this country.
The relationship between federal and state law on medical marijuana is somewhat tricky. 23 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, with potentially several more added to that list before the end of the year. However, marijuana technically remains illegal on the federal level in any form — whether medical or recreational.
Whether state or federal law should win on this issue had been hotly debated. Congress passed a law in 2014, and reauthorized it again in 2015, preventing federal agents from raiding retail operations in states where medical use is legal. But that didn’t technically change the federal status of the drug, it just shaped federal law enforcement’s behavior and policies. Booker and Paul’s bill would seal the deal once and for all. There are several provisions, but here are three of the biggest —
What the bill would do
First, it would amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) so that it would not apply to medical marijuana as defined by state law.
Second, it would prohibit banking regulations from punishing individuals or organizations associated with cultivating the drug. (A standalone bill has also been introduced to deal with this specific issue, as we wrote about earlier this year.)
Third, it would downgrade the drug from Schedule I to Schedule II under the federal classification system. Under its current Schedule I status, it is classified along with heroin and ecstasy, which most experts believe is inappropriate because they consider marijuana less harmful. (The Drug Enforcement Agency hinted this week that it may take steps on their own to downgrade the drug later this year.)
What supporters say
The bill’s sponsors argue that it would defer to states rights and help patients medically who could use the drug without fear of reprisal.
“We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose — recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows,” said Booker.
“For far too long, the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana and have prohibited Americans from receiving essential care that will alleviate their chronic pain and suffering,” said Paul.
What opponents say
Make no mistake, though: the idea has plenty of opponents in Congress. For last year’s vote on the aforementioned bill to prevent federal intrusion into state-level legal medical marijuana operations, the vote was 242–186. Among the biggest concerns was that this move would open the floodgates to much more legal recreational marijuana, an idea that has encountered much more resistance from both politicians and voters than legal medical marijuana.
Rep. John Fleming (R-LA4) said:
> “The idea of medical marijuana is a joke. It’s an end run around the laws.There are more pot shops in California than there are Starbucks or McDonald’s.”
The bill has a mix of cosponsors, 14 Democrats and three Republicans. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but has not yet come up for a vote. The identical House version H.R. 1538, introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN9) has an even more evenly-bipartisan 19 Democrat and 12 Republican cosponsors, but also has yet to receive a vote.