The United States Senate is an intentionally slow moving body when it comes to passing laws, but the nation's upper legislative chamber is even slower when it comes to catching up with the popular will of the American people. That's especially been on display when it comes to the nation's pot laws, but now there's a growing core group of senators who are vocally crying out for the federal government to catch up with the states, at least when it comes to medical marijuana.
Usually House members take the lead on marijuana policy, but last week a bipartisan and ideologically diverse group of six senators introduced legislation that would allow the laws legalizing medical marijuana in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam to supersede the current federal prohibition on weed. It also would make it easier for epilepsy patients and veterans to access medical marijuana, while loosening restriction on researching weed. The proponents think they’ll gain more support than ever before for the effort, and they hope to keep pressure on Senate leaders to allow the bill to come to the floor.
The legislation is titled the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act, or the CARERS ACT for short. Currently, federal prohibition trumps states laws, a system that proponents say is outdated. This bill would flip the current arrangement on its head, finally letting state laws prevail.
"Again, this makes no sense in science, makes no sense in compassion, makes no sense in terms of law, it makes no sense frankly in terms of economics," Democratic Sen. Cory Booker said when he unveiled his bill at the Capitol. "This is a very, very unjust law. And it shouldn't be allowed to stand, that's why we're pushing this."
While Congress has reaffirmed its position that the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Justice can't spend their resources to go after legal medical marijuana businesses, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is known to be an ardent marijuana foe and lawmakers fear he's planning to bypass the will of Congress and go after the nation's growing number of legal marijuana businesses. In May he sent a letter asking party leaders to allow him to prosecute medical marijuana businesses, which worries proponents.
"I served with Senator Sessions. He never hid his belief that he wanted to make sure marijuana stayed illegal, even in medical cases," Booker said at the unveiling. "In his letter he misrepresents the facts by talking about this being a historical moment of crisis in terms of marijuana. Almost like he's confusing the opioid crisis, which actually medical marijuana is one way to alleviate that crisis. So we have someone who is demonstrating ignorance of the facts, no compassion when it comes to families that are suffering."
The legislation removes the current hurdles for universities, research hospitals and private companies to intensely study pot by doing away with the review board at the Department of Health and Human Services that's currently charged with signing off on marijuana research. It also allows doctors at Veterans Affairs hospitals to prescribe pot to their patients, many of whom are suffering from PTSD or struggling with substance abuse, like opioid addiction.
Possibly the most notable thing about the CARERS Act is that it's one of those rare bills that brings together the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the likes of Sens. Booker and Al Franken, with Tea Party-tinged Republicans, like Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul – a libertarian physician who wants to put states in charge of their marijuana laws and to get better research on the medicinal benefits of weed.
"I think we shouldn't restrict research into any drugs looking for a potential health benefit," Paul tells Rolling Stone. "I think right now with marijuana being Schedule I, it's very hard to do research. So one of the good aspects is changing to Schedule II so we can actually do more research on what might help people."
Paul also supports the Right to Try movement, which is aimed at allowing terminally ill patients to access drugs that have passed minimal clinical trials but that aren't approved for public consumption yet, hence they're not on pharmacy shelves. He thinks that should apply to medical marijuana too.
"You know we have a lot of terminal patients who want the right to try certain medications," Paul says while briskly walking through the basement of the Capitol. "We also have a lot of patients who may not necessarily be terminal but are very sick and may have an incurable disease, and they do get some benefit from marijuana. People with nausea, people with wasting [syndrome], people with seizures. The bottom line is... it's kind of crazy that OxyContin is Schedule II and marijuana is Schedule I. That doesn't make any sense."
Another reason for the changing mood in Congress is that voters in many states have given Republican opponents of weed political cover or possibly even marching orders to follow through on what their constituents approved at the ballot box.
"I voted against the legalization, but our state voted overwhelmingly to support it," Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski tells Rolling Stone. "And so what I've been trying to do is figure out a way to respect what the state has done, both with medical marijuana and with recreational use. And right now it's very confusing."
She says the confusion stems from having a law and regulatory regime at the state level that is at odds with federal statutes. Alaska already legalized medical marijuana before 52 percent of voters cast ballots to legalize it for recreational use too.
"This is an interesting issue for me," she says. "Because it's not one that I support, but when your state votes so overwhelmingly in favor of something, by initiative I have to respect that. So that's kind of where I am right now."
Proponents say the CARERS Act is the first step. That's why they kept it narrowly focused on medical marijuana and didn't wade into the stickier issue of recreation weed, which has been approved in eight states and the nation's capital. But some supporters eventually want to extend it to recreational pot, and to other areas, like restrictions on banking that force marijuana businesses to be all-cash businesses.
"One of the issues that I find really concerning is the conflict that we see play out with the banking laws," Murkowski says. You have vendors that are working within the state laws, and we've set up some pretty clear and firm regulations regarding all aspects of sale and distribution. And so, what then happens, you got your vendor who is working within the law and they are successful. They want to pay their taxes. But there's no mechanism for handling this money because the banks won't touch it. So you then have security issues, unsafe situations. So again, trying to figure out how you respect the will of the states but at the same time recognizing that the federal laws set up a conflict."
The last thing the CARERS Act does is it allows people in states where weed remains illegal at all levels to access CBD or Cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic substance found in cannabis, which is viewed by many patients as a miracle drug. In particular, people with epilepsy, especially children, report it can radically reduce the number of seizures they endure regularly. Just last month the New-England Journal of Medicine released a study showing a reduction of seizures and overall improvement in the health of 62 percent of the children they studied while giving them CBD. Supporters say that work is groundbreaking.
"When you talk about how this affects your child, and how their lives are so significantly better, it's irrefutable. It is so compelling," Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another original co-sponsor of the bill, tells Rolling Stone. "I believe things are changing and they're changing fast. So I think we will get the support we need, we just need to keep telling these stories and urging people across America, to speak out and speak out on social media, to tell your personal stories. Because it is those stories that will literally push this country to passing that law."