Last Tuesday, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, the first time in history a comprehensive bill to legalize medical marijuana has been introduced in the US Senate. To protect Massachusetts patients and respect the will of our state’s voters, Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren should endorse this bill and fight hard to make it into law.
Arguably the most important part of the bill would establish true federalism in marijuana policy, exempting state-legal programs from the federal Controlled Substances Act. Congress took a big step in this direction by attaching an amendment to the “cromnibus” spending bill last December, which banned the Department of Justice from spending money enforcing federal prohibition against states with legal medical marijuana programs. This bill would take that a step further, widening the ban to apply to the entire federal government and making it permanent.
As Massachusetts is one of the 23 states that allows medical marijuana under certain conditions, ending the federal ban on medical marijuana is of utmost importance. We saw the awful impact of federal prohibition last year, when the DEA went so far as to visit the homes of doctors serving on the board of prospective medical marijuana dispensaries, threatening to revoke their licenses to dispense medicine if they continued working in the program. This led many doctors to cut ties with dispensaries across the state, causing a brain drain of talent from this new and growing field that is serving countless seriously ill patients in need of expert medical advice.
The CARERS Act would also reschedule marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, another long-overdue reform. Marijuana’s current Schedule 1 status says it has a “high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use in treatment,” although the drug is less addictive than alcohol, tobacco, and many prescriptions drugs, and its many medical uses are widely recognized. Moving it to Schedule 2 would recognize that it has at least some medical use, and could even open up the possibility of health insurance coverage starting to include marijuana for seriously ill patients.
If passed, this bill would open the floodgates of marijuana research, which are still only beginning to ease up despite so many states adopting legalization. Scientists hoping to study marijuana face unique barriers, such as the onerous Public Health Service Review Process, which no other Schedule 1 drug faces. The University of Mississippi is also the only federally approved source of marijuana for research, allowing it to serve as a bottleneck for supplying materials necessary to study the plant. A UMass agriculture professor tried to end this monopoly in 2013, but the DEA refused his petition. The CARERS Act would finally end this nonsensical practice and allow many more researchers to learn about marijuana and its positive and negative effects.
Veterans who rely on the Veterans Administration for their health care would also be big winners under this bill. Over 9 million veterans are currently enrolled in the VA, many of them with PTSD and other conditions that medical marijuana can assist with. Yet VA doctors are forbidden from recommending marijuana to their patients, even in states like Massachusetts with legal programs. This makes it even more difficult for sick veterans to get the care they need after returning home, but allowing them to access marijuana under a doctor’s supervision could go a long way towards improving their mental and physical health.
In 2012, Massachusetts voted to become the 18th state to allow medical marijuana by a wide margin, with 63% supporting that election’s ballot measure. Yet not a single dispensary is open and not a single patient has access to an affordable, safe supply of medicine. If they value public opinion and want to protect the countless patients who are suffering under federal marijuana prohibition, Senators Warren and Markey would do well to champion the CARERS Act and allow our state move forward with its program without any worries of federal interference.