Exactly one year and one week ago, Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) introduced his Congressional colleagues to HR 1538, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015 or the CARERS Act. Since then, Cohen has made a compelling case to a number of committees, where the bill remains awaiting recommendations before it will ever get a floor vote. Meanwhile, terminally ill patients who need cannabis but live in states that have yet to legalize marijuana have two options: move to a state where it’s legal to get treatment or pray the laws will change before it’s too late for them.
“The consensus on medical marijuana is overwhelming,” said Rep. Cohen in his address to the House of Representatives introducing the CARERS Act. He went on to cite a CBS News Poll that found 86 percent of Americans thought doctors should be allowed to prescribe small amounts of marijuana for patients suffering from serious illnesses. He added, “86 percent of Americans rarely agree on anything.”
So far, the CARERS Act has bi-partisan support in the House with 31 representatives signed on to co-sponsor the bill. In addition to Cohen’s bill, other medical marijuana legislation led in the House by Congressmen Don Young (R-AK) and in the Senate by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is gaining more and more bipartisan support. Four related bills are also pending committee review including H.R.667 Veterans Equal Access Act, H.R.1940 Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015, S.683 Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015, S.1726 Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act of 2015.
“It is long overdue for our federal law to reflect the common sense views of 86 percent of Americans and stop adding to the suffering of those with horrible illnesses,” said Cohen. Co-supporters in the Senate agree.
“We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose—recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows,” said Senator Booker, a co-sponsor of the CARERS Act in the Senate. “The growing momentum and bipartisan support for the CARERS Act in both the Senate and House are a clear indication that together, we can and will make medical marijuana accessible to the millions of Americans who could benefit from it.”
The CARERS Act is still long-overdue a year later.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming support, the CARERS Act has a long way to go before it can become law. The bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and in addition to the Committees on the Judiciary, Financial Services, and Veterans’ Affairs, for a period that has yet to be determined by the Speaker. Since then, it has subsequently been referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and, most recently, the Committee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.
Why so many committees? The CARERS Act covers a lot of topics, and will impact a lot of Federal laws having to do with:
- Bank accounts, deposits, capital
- Banking and financial institutions regulation
- Crime and Law Enforcement
- Criminal investigation, prosecution, interrogation
- Drug therapy
- Drug trafficking and controlled substances
- Fraud offenses and financial crimes
- Intergovernmental relations
- Medical research
- State and local government operations
- Veterans’ medical care
In a hearing on November 15, 2015 while making a case before the Justice Department Oversight Committee, Cohen told U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch that Marijuana should not be a Schedule 1 drug. Lynch argued that it would take investigation by the FDA and DEA before rescheduling would be considered. Cohen noted the veritable Catch 22, that such investigations can’t legally happen until it is rescheduled. Cohen told her, “I would hope you would look into initiating, which you can, taking it off the schedule one [list]. It’s crazy to have it there with LSD and heroin. It should not be there and should be studied.”
What’s in the CARERS Act?
According to information provided on Congress.gov, the CARERS Act covers a lot of ground and will solve a number of issues that have yet to be addressed by congress. Provisions of the bill include:
- Amends the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to provide that control and enforcement provisions of such Act relating to marihuana shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with state law relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, laboratory testing, or delivery of medical marihuana.
- Transfers marihuana from schedule I to schedule II of the CSA.
- Excludes “cannabidiol” from the definition of “marihuana” and defines it separately as the substance cannabidiol, as derived from marihuana or the synthetic formulation, that contains not greater than 0.3% delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol on a dry weight basis. Deems marihuana that is grown or possessed for purposes of making cannabidiol, in accordance with state law, to meet such concentration limitation unless the Attorney General determines that the state law is not reasonably calculated to comply with such definition.
- Prohibits a federal banking regulator from: (1) terminating or limiting the deposit insurance of a depository institution solely because it provides or has provided financial services to a marihuana-related legitimate business; or (2) prohibiting, penalizing, or otherwise discouraging a depository institution from providing financial services to a marihuana-related legitimate business.
- Prohibits a federal banking regulator from recommending, motivating, providing incentives, or encouraging a depository institution not to offer financial services to an individual, or to downgrade or cancel financial services offered to an individual, solely because: (1) the individual is a manufacturer of marihuana, (2) the individual is or later becomes an owner or operator of a marihuana-related legitimate business, or (3) the depository institution was not aware that the individual is the owner or operator of a marihuana-related legitimate business.
- Prohibits a federal banking regulator from taking any adverse or corrective supervisory action on a loan to an owner or operator of: (1) a marihuana-related legitimate business soley because the owner or operator is such a business, or (2) real estate or equipment that is leased to a marihuana-related legitimate business solely because it is leased to such a business.
- Provides depository institutions that provide financial services to a marihuana-related legitimate business protection under federal law from federal criminal prosecution or investigation, criminal penalties, and forfeiture of legal interest in collateral solely for providing financial services to such a business.
- Directs: (1) the Department of Health and Human Services to terminate the Public Health Service interdisciplinary review process described in the guidance entitled “Guidance on Procedures for the Provision of marihuana for Medical Research” (issued on May 21, 1999), and (2) the Drug Enforcement Administration to issue at least three licenses under CSA registration requirements to manufacture marihuana and marihuana-derivatives for research approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
- Directs the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to authorize VA health care providers to provide veterans with recommendations and opinions regarding participation in state marihuana programs.
While the CARERS Act would not “legalize” medical marijuana in states that have not already passed legislation to make it legal, it would cause the federal government to respect states’ rights to set their own medical marijuana policies and prevent federal law enforcement from prosecuting patients, doctors and caregivers in those states. It may also break the barriers to such measures, especially where state lawmakers cite federal prohibition as the primary reason for not legalizing medical marijuana.
What can you do to get Congress to CARE?
A number of advocacies, including the National Cannabis Coalition, NORML and Americans for Safe Access are actively recruiting volunteers to call their Congressional reps. Americans for Safe Access have gone as far as to include a script you can use for calling both Senators and Representatives to ask questions and let them know you want them to pass this important legislation. There you will also be able to look up contact information for your representatives.