Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill Is In U.S. Senate For First Time

Two young rising Democrats and a Tea Party stalwart with presidential potential walk into a room full of aging obstructionists and try to legalize medical marijuana.

For the first time, a bill to legalize medical marijuana on the federal level was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, courtesy of the perhaps unlikely triumvirate of Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). 

Legalizing medical cannabis is not all the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act would do if passed. Marijuana would also be rescheduled at the federal level, dispensaries would be able to use banks, and scientists and disabled veterans alike would be able to access cannabis for research and palliative purposes.

This is big news, but there's always something to kvetch about. Nowhere to be found are the two senators from California — which could also be an indicator of this bill's prospects in a Republican-controlled Senate.

Medical marijuana has always been a bipartisan issue. Introducing bills to legalize hemp and allow the states to do as they please with legal weed — bills that always went nowhere, dying in committee — was an annual ritual for another Paul: retired U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, Rand's dad. This was a big reason why the ultra-conservative Paul always had a couple of dreadlocked hippies in his camp (most of who would be shocked to hear of Paul's stance on the Environmental Protection Agency).

So having a Republican named Paul back legal weed isn't necessarily huge — though certainly having it be a senator with a Silicon Valley office and legitimate presidential potential is a big deal. Booker (whose political consultant team includes San Francisco Bay Area-based firm 50+1 Strategies) it should be noted, has been a stalwart for legal marijuana: he was a Senate co-sponsor of the funding bill that — in theory, at least — defunded the Justice Department efforts to undermine legal medical marijuana operations.

Here's what the CARERS Act does, as per the Drug Policy Alliance: 

“It will expand research into the health benefits of marijuana.

It will allow Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend marijuana to ailing veterans.

It will completely legalize high CBD strains of marijuana for medical treatment nationwide.

It will reclassify marijuana as schedule 2, admitting to the world that marijuana does in fact have medical benefits.

And it will allow banks to legally provide financial services to marijuana businesses.”

This would change just about everything. Non-medical cannabis would still be illegal, but scientists across the country would be able to research medical cannabis. Doctors would be able to prescribe medical cannabis rather than just recommending it. And, of course, it would end the federal lie that cannabis is more dangerous and has less medical benefit than cocaine.

This seems to be a political winner that takes into account how swiftly the country's attitude has changed on cannabis. Red states across the Bible Belt are hopping on board the CBD train, realizing that the non-psychoactive cannabinoid does wonders for kids with otherwise incurable epilepsy. State lawmakers have watched families uproot themselves to Colorado for healing; now it appears federal lawmakers are realizing that this medicine is real.

These are things cannabis advocates have been demanded for some time. But there are plenty of hopeless bills that get introduced in both houses of Congress. How does this one fare?

First of all, it's notable that both senators from California are absent from the list of co-sponsors. You were never going to get avowed drug warrior Sen. Dianne Feinstein on board. Having retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer sit this one out is a little disappointing. Powerful law enforcement lobbies in California are still dead-set against legal marijuana in any form, but since Boxer is exiting the Senate in two years' time, she has less to lose.

Despite being Republican-controlled, there's more liberal drug laws in this Congress than in any other: U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado is the co-sponsor of a bill that would regulate marijuana like alcohol, more or less ending the war on weed entirely.

That bill is unlikely to be heard in committee. As for the Senate bill: getting called for a hearing requires the goodwill and participation of the committee chair. That will require the goodwill and participation of a mainstream Republican, because every committee chair is a Republican. And, unfortunately for marijuana, none of them are named Paul.

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