Medical Marijuana Advocates Rally to Loosen Restrictions

Alicia Ault

March 23, 2016

Medical marijuana advocates are hoping Congress will move to loosen restrictions on the drug and approve reclassifying it from schedule I to schedule II, but legislation to do that, and to loosen research restrictions, has not gained much traction on Capitol Hill.

Patients, dispensary owners, advocates, and several members of the US House of Representatives staged a rally on the Capitol grounds March 22, calling for a congressional vote on the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683). That bill was introduced in the Senate in March 2015 by Cory Booker (D-NJ). A companion bill was introduced in the House shortly thereafter by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn).

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose committee has jurisdiction over the legislation, has said in the past that he wants to increase medical marijuana research but that he is opposed to rescheduling the substance. The committee has not held hearings on the CARERS Act.

In addition to calling for a rescheduling of marijuana, the bill proposes to remove the threat of federal prosecution for medical marijuana sellers and patients who comply with state laws. It also defines cannabidiol as distinct from marijuana and would allow states to import it for medical purposes. Further, it directs the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to authorize VA healthcare providers to provide veterans with recommendations and opinions regarding participation in state marijuana programs.

Twenty-three states and Washington, DC, have approved the use of medical marijuana. Those states are moving ahead to determine the risks and benefits, said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D- DC).

Norton and other advocates believe there needs to be a national guiding policy.

"The Congress of the United States keeps us from moving ahead on understanding medical marijuana ― what are its values, its true benefits? What are its dangers? We need to know," said Norton, who added that universities should be free to conduct research.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif), who has been outspoken in support of legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, said he views use of the substance, in particular for medical purposes, as a freedom issue. "Let that decision be made by the doctors; let's not let this decision be made by politicians or bureaucrats," he said.

"We need to change the future of cannabis in this country," said Kate Hintz, an advocate from New York who said her 5-year-old daughter has an intractable form of epilepsy that has resulted in 1000 seizures during her lifetime.

"It is the worst injustice to continue to deny this treatment to patients that need it so desperately, like my young daughter," said Hintz, who called on Sen. Grassley to "let the CARERS Act move forward with a vote, and let patients know that you stand with us and not in our way."

The bill has been referred to four committees in the House, but none have held hearings. The act does have the support of both Republicans and Democrats, with 30 cosponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate.

That prompted Rohrabacher to quip, "We can, in a bipartisan way, recognize stupidity when we see it."

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