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Major Pot Reform Bill Introduced in Senate

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 3/10/2015 Steven Nelson

Two multiple sclerosis patients, a 4-year-old who had a seizure in front of reporters, a depression-plagued Navy veteran and three fired-up senators kicked off a major effort to reform U.S. marijuana laws at a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday.

The senators -- Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Corey Booker, D-N.J. -- are proposing legislation that would legalize state medical marijuana programs under federal law and reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

The legislation would allow for greater research into the medicinal value of the drug, with the lower schedule opening the door to eventual health insurance-covered pot at conventional pharmacies around the country.

Possession of marijuana for any reason outside limited research currently is a federal crime, even though four states have voter-approved laws allowing recreational use of the drug and nearly two dozen allow use of marijuana as medicine.

The Department of Justice generally turns a blind eye to patients in the 23 states whose laws allow doctors to “recommend” and dispensaries to sell the drug to patients, but federal prosecutions do still happen.

A dozen other states allow use of cannbidiol, a compound used to treat some seizures, and others such as Virginia have decades-old laws that allow doctors to prescribe marijuana, which is currently impossible because it’s a Schedule I drug, meaning federal authorities must deem it to have no accepted medical value.

The new bill -- the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act -- would allow doctors affiliated with the Veterans Health Administration to recommend the drug to patients and explicitly allow medical marijuana businesses access to the banking system.

It’s unclear how the bill will fare, but momentum is on the side of reformers.

Congress voted last year to ban federal prosecutors and the Drug Enforcement Administration from spending fiscal year 2015 funds to go after state medical marijuana laws, but that vote did not change the underlying law.

Legal access to medical marijuana is overwhelmingly supported by Americans, according to polls, but opponents remain influential in both major parties. Politicians who oppose legal access to medical marijuana include hard-line anti-legalization Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., leader of the Democratic National Committee, that party’s central organization.

Rank-and-file members of Congress appear more in line with the public on medical pot, with most Democrats and many Republicans in the House voting last year to protect state medical marijuana programs. Some of those in the minority on that 219-189 vote, such as conservative Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., said the measure didn’t go far enough and they would prefer to change the actual law.

Last year’s medical marijuana measure did not come up for a vote in the Senate and was rolled into a large spending deal signed into law in December.

The tone of the senators Tuesday may hint at the seriousness of the new legislative push.

“Today we join together to say enough is enough,” Booker told a packed room. “Our federal government has long overstepped the boundaries of common sense, fiscal prudence and compassion with its marijuana laws. These laws must change.”

The senators each personalized the issue by introducing patients. Paul introduced the father of a staff member, who treated spasms and pain from MS with pot while living in Arizona, before he moved to Virginia, where he cannot legally acquire the drug.

“I dare any senator to meet with the patients here and say to them they don’t deserve the medicine their doctors prescribe,” a fervent Gillibrand said, describing opposition to medical marijuana as “clearly a case of ideology getting in the way of scientific progress.”

“Patients need this medicine,” she said. “It’s outrageous they are not allowed to take it, it is outrageous that any parent should be worried about child’s services knocking on their door.”

Paul said most people believe medical marijuana should be legal for patients because “if you don’t believe in medical marijuana you believe in putting that person in jail.”

Paul and other senators declined to offer predictions for how long it would take for marijuana to become available at conventional pharmacies, should their legislation pass.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report


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