Congress Set to Revive CARERS Act on Thursday

Members of Congress are expected to introduce a revised version of the CARERS Act on Capitol Hill tomorrow afternoon. It would be the second introduction of the bill since its debut in 2015. The new version waters down two of the bill’s key elements, which could give it a better chance at a committee hearing.

Both chambers are in on the bill. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK, pictured above), and Al Franken (D-MN) will introduce in the upper house, while a group of Congress members including Rep. Don Young (R-AK), will introduce the House bill.

CARERS stands for Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States. The original version of the bill would have ended the drug war, at least with regard to cannabis. This latest version is softer.

New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker first introduced the CARERS Act in March 2015. That version would have rescheduled cannabis, a Schedule I drug, to Schedule II, where the bulk of the more heavily controlled pharmaceuticals are kept.

It would have also protected banks who choose to deal with cannabis businesses, perhaps the industry’s most broad-reaching problem.

The bill expected to be introduced tomorrow will have neither of those elements.

Still, the second try of the CARERS Act would clean up several of the problems plaguing cannabis consumers and the states that legalized cannabis. The bill seems more medically focused than the last version, which had a commercial flavor in the banking section.

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What the New Act Would Do

In effect, the new bill would take four major actions, each aimed at allowing states to make their own decisions:

First, CARERS would change the Controlled Substances Act to allow states to make their own medical cannabis laws. States already do this – 30 of them, so far – but the modification to the CSA would stop the federal government from prosecuting anybody in states where cannabis is medically legal. Right now there are no concrete protections, aside from the temporary Rohrabacher-Blumenauer budget amendment, and states operate under vague threats and hints from federal officials.

The CARERS Act would also cure one of the state-caused bottlenecks in medical supply chains. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration groups cannabidiol (CBD) with the other Schedule I cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Many states specifically allow medical CBD, which can treat nervous diseases including epilepsy, but don’t allow for its production. The resulting nationwide confusion has led to raids and seizures, even in states where the far more psychoactive cannabinoid THC is legal. The CARERS Act would strip CBD out of the Controlled Substances Act so states could import it.

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Along the same patient access lines, CARERS would allow veterans to get prescriptions for cannabis from their Veterans Affairs doctors. Because of federal laws, current VA physicians are not allowed to talk about cannabis with veterans.

Finally, the bill would simplify how researchers can get their hands on cannabis for studies. Right now, nearly all researchers are legally bound to use poor-quality cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi.

Whether or not the bill’s new terms will help is anyone’s guess. Last time, the bill didn’t do so well – both the House and the Senate shunted it off into a handful of subcommittees, and not a single one of them gave the bill a hearing.

Most cannabis-related bills share the same fate, both historically and recently. Californian Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher introduced the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2015 in April of that year. Like the CARERS Act, the House sliced it up among half a dozen subcommittees, and nothing has ever come of it.

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So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance…

This time, there is a little more steam behind the effort.

The new bill has more power players than it did before. Utah Sen. Mike Lee is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Most long time cannabis advocates see the Judiciary Committee as the biggest hurdle in Congress, guarded closely by chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) – who most of those advocates say is cannabis legalization’s biggest enemy, with the exception of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski brings some muscle as well. She sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee – the one Sessions asked just a few days ago to remove a rider that forbids the Department of Justice from going after cannabis in state where it’s legal.

The bill is also getting more love from both sides of the aisle. Support for the CARERS Act is starting to look decidedly more purple than in previous years. On the Senate side, the sponsoring legislators are half GOP – Sens. Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), and Lisa Murkowski (AK). This is part of a larger trend in Washington, where more and more Republicans are backing cannabis measures, or at least showing themselves more receptive to hearing the arguments in favor of legalization. Traditional conservative issues like state rights and free markets are now as much a part of the conversation as medical access.

Whether it gets a hearing anytime soon is almost beside the point – the CARERS Act shows that cannabis is slowly getting Congress on its side.


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