Justice

Senate Proposal Would Legalize Medical Marijuana

CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Matt Figi with his once severely-ill 7-year-old daughter Charlotte, as they wander around inside a greenhouse for a special strain of medical marijuana known as Charlotte's Web, named for the girl in her early treatment,

As Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was announcing her landmark proposal to reform federal marijuana laws Tuesday, a four-year-old child named Morgan had a small seizure in the audience. Morgan has seizures so severe that she can’t sit, stand, or crawl independently. She can’t speak. She’s been hospitalized numerous times, and has never gone more than four weeks without a serious seizure.

And at this point, her mother Kate Hintz said during the announcement, “we will never know what has affected her more. Her uncontrolled seizures or the mountains of medication she has taken in her life.” Kate was one of many parents who found, after years of using severe barbiturates to unsuccessfully treat their symptoms that marijuana was the only thing that helped their child.

A bill introduced in the Senate Tuesday would for the first time since Congress passed the current drug prohibition scheme in 1970 ease federal restrictions for these kids and a swell of other medical marijuana patients. Even in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, there remain many fundamental obstacles to obtaining medical marijuana, from the threat of federal prosecution, to no legal market for sale, to prosecution threats of the doctors and dispensaries that serve these patients. In those states where it’s not legal, families dubbed “marijuana refugees” have uprooted their lives to move to Colorado for medical marijuana access, or violated the law to travel across state lines with special strains of medical marijuana.

The so-called CARERS Act introduced by Sens. Corey Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Gillibrand (D-NY) would reform the current restrictions on funding marijuana research. It would allow patients to cross state lines with certain strains of cannabis known as cannabidiol (CBD) oils that have been used to treat children’s seizures. It would allow states to set their own laws on marijuana, and give veterans access to cannabis by permitting Department of Veterans’ Affairs doctors to recommend that treatment. It would curb the practice of cash-only marijuana dispensaries by giving pot businesses legal access to banks. And most remarkably, it would for the first time change the original marijuana law that has put a chokehold on marijuana progress, moving its designation from Schedule I to Schedule II.

It’s hard to overstate the onerous obstacle that the federal schedule of drugs in the Controlled Substances Act has presented to marijuana reform. Since 1970, marijuana has been listed as Schedule I, the most stringent of the five schedules, meaning it is considered a dangerous substance with no currently accepted medical value. Alcohol and tobacco are not even on this schedule. And highly addictive and potent drugs, meanwhile, including cocaine, opium poppy, morphine, and codeine, are listed as Schedule II, designated for those drugs that have a high potential for abuse and dependence, but which have “a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions.”

Keeping the drug on Schedule I has meant that the federal government could make no exceptions to its federal prohibition policy. It could not allow doctors to prescribe the medication, nor for pharmacies to dispense it. It made no exceptions for prosecutions. And it has not even allowed — in most instances — for researchers to perform studies on marijuana using a legal supply of the drug.

Several long-running lawsuits implored the Drug Enforcement Administration to change this schedule to no avail. And if Congress were to pass such a law — versions of which have already had some support in the House — it would be nothing short of a sea change. As recently as 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration referred to medical marijuana as “medical” in scare quotes in official materials. A memo that year that concluded FDA-approved drugs are safer for every medical condition than smoking marijuana cited a bizarre story in which a 14-year-old girl who was “force-fed” marijuana leaves to help alleviate an adverse reaction to Ecstasy died several days later.And there are still people in prison serving five or ten-year mandatory minimum sentences for distributing medical marijuana in states where it was legal.

But over the past two years, as all eyes turned to the passage of recreational marijuana laws in several states, medical marijuana has become something of a mainstream issue, culminating in Tuesday’s announcement. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D), and even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have expressed at least tepid support for medical marijuana. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta said he “we have been terribly and systematically misled” on marijuana.

“This is clearly a case of ideology getting in the way of scientific progress,” Gillibrand said Wednesday.