Federal Lawmakers Seek to End Legal Gray Area for States

With New York’s medical marijuana program slated to go live in January, it’s worth catching up on where the federal government stands on the issue. While legalization of any kind was once staunchly opposed at the national level, Washington has recently been receptive to allowing states to administer their own programs. But there are still some hurdles to overcome.

While 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for medical use in some fashion, the plant remains a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level, meaning it is considered to have “no currently accepted medical use.” Yet the most recent voice of support has come from President Barack Obama himself, who came out in favor of relaxing the federal position in April. In June the administration announced an end to a rule that all prospective marijuana studies undergo a Public Health Service review before being federally sanctioned— eliminating an additional hurdle in the highly cumbersome application process for researchers.

And there is substantial, bipartisan support in Congress as well, which this spring passed an amendment to an annual spending bill forbidding the U.S. Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency from using funds to interfere with state laws permitting medical marijuana.

“Last year the amendment got 219 votes in the House, and this time it got 242, and then we also passed it in the Senate this year, which we didn’t do last year—so it’s fair to say support is growing pretty rapidly in Congress,” said Dan Riffle, federal policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington. “It’s pretty clear at this point that the Obama administration and a majority in Congress don’t want DOJ spending its resources on interfering with state medical marijuana efforts o circumventing state laws on the issue.”

Yet such a measure has to be passed every year to remain effective. And while the amendment is intended to be clear according to two of its authors, U.S. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Sam Farr, the Justice Department has claimed the amendment fails to block prosecution of organizations and individuals in contempt of the law—an interpretation that aligns with DOJ’s continued pursuit of several cases against marijuana dispensaries in California’s Bay Area, for example.

A historic bill introduced in the U.S. Senate this spring, however, aims to end the tension between federal and state laws permanently by knocking the drug down to Schedule II, end federal interference in state medical marijuana programs and make it easier to research the plant.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act, introduced in March by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, seeks to “extend the principle of federalism to State drug policy,” whereby the states are considered “laboratories of Democracy.”

If passed, the CARERS Act would have a sweeping effect on federal pot policy: The Controlled Substances Act would be amended, allowing states to set their own rules without fear of federal interference. Marijuana would also be reclassified as a less dangerous substance under the new law: Currently classified as Schedule I along with heroin, pot would be classified Schedule II, along with drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone, all of which have an accepted medical use.

The legislation would also go a step further and completely deschedule some strains of marijuana low in THC—the plant’s main psychoactive chemical— but high in levels of cannabidiol or CBD, a chemical that has been shown to have a useful medical purpose, but which does not produce a “high” the way THC does.

State Sen. Diane Savino supports Gillibrand’s efforts. “I think what Senator Gillibrand is doing is absolutely amazing,” she said. “There’s a whole bunch of different populations across this country that have become accustomed to medical marijuana, who expect it and want it, and we have state governments that depend upon the revenue. So it is time for the Congress, and members of Congress from those states to step up and say it’s enough already and we need to change it.”?

In June, Gillibrand testified before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that she was introduced to the issues surrounding medical marijuana when parents of children suffering from seizures approached her about the positive effects CBD-rich cannabis had on their children.

“CBD can reduce the number of seizures patients experience,” Gillibrand said. “The benefits are dramatic. Children’s brains and bodies can develop, they can learn, they can play. They can be kids.”

Furthermore, the CARERS Act would encourage banks to begin handling money for marijuana dispensaries. Currently, lending institutions are wary of being branded money launderers by the federal government, meaning that most dispensaries have to deal entirely in cash.

Finally, the bill would end the federal monopoly on growing and harvesting marijuana for research. Currently there is only one federally sanctioned pot farm in the U.S., and that’s at the University of Mississippi. This is part of the reason marijuana research has been so slow to develop in the U.S.

But even though both the president and Congress seem to be coming around on the issue—CARERS in the Senate enjoys 12 bipartisan co-sponsors and its equivalent in the House has 16, including Reps. Richard Hanna and Jerrold Nadler of New York—the bill will likely not be going anywhere this year.

“Sen. Chuck Grassley (of Iowa) chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and he’s militantly pro-drug war and anti-marijuana, so he’s not gonna call the bill any time soon,” said the Marijuana Policy Project’s Riffle, who also noted that Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who chairs the Judiciary Committee in the House, is also staunchly against the drug.

But Riffle sees the long-standing federal crackdowns on state-sanctioned medical marijuana operations petering out nonetheless.

“DOJ prosecutions of individuals and asset forfeiture actions against businesses that are in compliance with state laws will happen with less and less frequency until they stop, which they largely have already,” Riffle said. “That is, unless and until a future administration reverses course, which is extremely unlikely given how popular marijuana reform is and how strongly Americans oppose federal enforcement of marijuana laws in states where it’s legal.”