Sen. Cory A. Booker (D., N.J.) joined with Sens. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) Tuesday to announce a bipartisan bill to lift federal restrictions against medical marijuana.
The legislation would remove the specter of federal prosecution in the 23 states that have medical marijuana programs - including New Jersey - and any others that may be considering one. Washington, D.C., also has a program, and a dozen other states have laws permitting patients to buy Cannabidiol, an ingredient in cannabis that does not produce a high but has been reported to be effective in curbing seizures and treating epilepsy.
At a Washington news conference, the senators said the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) bill would also eliminate marijuana's classification as a Schedule I drug, which puts it among the most dangerous, along with heroin and LSD, and to have no medicinal value. The drug would be reclassified as Schedule II, allowing it to be researched and more easily prescribed by doctors who want to give it to patients on an experimental basis.
The bill "seeks to right decades of wrong," Booker said. Federal laws block severely ill patients from getting relief they might be able to obtain from medical marijuana and "highly trained doctors are unable to prescribe and recommend drugs that can help" their patients, he said.
Paul added: "We as a society are changing our opinions on restrictions on our choices," including medical decisions. He said patients should not face prison if they use marijuana to alleviate symptoms that traditional medicines do not help.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that has advocated for medical marijuana for years, called the legislation "the first-ever bill in the U.S. Senate to legalize marijuana for medical use and the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill ever introduced in Congress."
Michael Collins, policy manager at the alliance, said there are more than 20 medical marijuana bills pending in the House, but none as broad as the Senate bill. "This bill is more far-reaching and comprehensive and tackles the federal prohibition against medical marijuana," he said.
Though federal laws view marijuana as an illegal substance, the Obama administration has issued guidelines to federal prosecutors saying enforcement of such laws in states that have medical marijuana programs should not be a priority.
But the conflicting laws have caused problems in those states. Marijuana dispensaries are unable to use the banking system to conduct business, and doctors often are reluctant to risk recommending the drug to patients. In New Jersey, which adopted its program five years ago, only a small percentage of the state's physicians have registered. Patients say this forces them in some cases to travel long distances to get the doctors' approvals they need to obtain marijuana.
The new bill also would ease the banking restrictions on dispensaries. Currently some dispensary operators in Colorado keep cash "in brown bags" because they are denied access to checking accounts and banks, Paul said.
Gillibrand said that she had met with parents who have sick children with epilepsy and discovered these parents are "simply asking Congress to do its job, to allow them to take care of their kids." Some parents have reported that medical marijuana, especially Cannabidiol, has reduced seizures, allowing their children's brains to develop.
Under the bill, Cannabidiol (CBD) would no longer be listed as marijuana. CBD oils could be imported across state lines.
"I am so happy to support this bill. As the mother of a child with a severe seizure disorder, anxiously waiting to get access to a medication that is already helping thousands of others is unbearable," said Kate Hintz, a New York resident who has advocated for CBD to treat her daughter, who has epilepsy.
"There is an urgent need for this," said Sandy Faiola, a New Jersey patient with multiple sclerosis who also spoke at the news conference. She said medical marijuana treated her insomnia, and alleviated nausea and neuralgia.
The American Medical Association did not respond to calls for comment on the bill.
Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a volunteer organization that advocates for increased enforcement and educational programs to reduce marijuana use, is opposed to such legislation.
"We should work with scientists to incentivize research to help groups like cancer patients - but we should not open the floodgates to 'Big Marijuana' so that businesses can sell pot for profit to people with a headache," Kevin A. Sabet, a drug policy expert at the University of Florida, said in an e-mail.
The CARERS bill also would allow Veterans Affairs physicians to recommend and prescribe medical marijuana to patients, especially those suffering from PTSD or chronic conditions. Currently, doctors are prohibited from discussing marijuana with veterans.
In some states, PTSD is among the medical conditions that qualify a patient to obtain marijuana. A bill in New Jersey would add that condition to the dozen ailments currently covered by the state's medical marijuana law.
The CARERS bill would not legalize medical marijuana in all 50 states, but would not allow federal interference in states that have such programs. The bill would prevent federal prosecution of patients, doctors, and caregivers in those states.
Booker said the bill potentially would make medical marijuana accessible to "millions of Americans who could benefit from it."
The CARERS act has the support of more than 20 health, veterans, and policy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Safe Access, Coalition for Medical Marijuana N.J., Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, and others.