A bill in the U.S. Senate would change how marijuana is treated at the federal level. Here's what that would mean for Washington state, where medicinal and legal use of cannabis are already legal.
A bipartisan trio of U.S. senators on Tuesday introduced the CARERS Act, a bill that overhauls how the federal government treats marijuana. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) outlined the bill in a press conference.
The legislation would:
- Downgrade cannabis from a Schedule 1 substance to Schedule 2, which allows doctors to prescribe it.
- Remove low-THC, high-CBD marijuana from the schedule altogether.
- Remove federal penalties for production, possession and distribution of medical marijuana when state laws are followed.
- Facilitate marijuana research.
- Allow doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe marijuana to veterans.
- Prevent banks from rejecting marijuana businesses.
Booker said the “federal government has overstepped the boundaries of common sense” with its marijuana policies and the bill “seeks to right decades of wrong.”
Added Gillibrand: “These laws ignore the health benefits of medical marijuana. This is clearly ideology getting in the way of scientific progress.”
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Paul said the legislation will give “more freedom to states and individuals” and give “ease to people in states who want this.”
What does this mean for Washington?
Marijuana has been legal in Washington for recreational purposes since 2012 and since 1998 for medical purposes. The state has been regulating the production, distribution and sale of recreational marijuana since last summer.
Still, this could be important for Washington. Here’s why:
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, but enforcement is not a priority — for now.
Marijuana has flourished during President Obama’s term because of prosecutorial discretion at the federal level. Twice, the Justice Department has indicated it would allow states to experiment with new marijuana regulations that don’t align with federal laws.
In 2009, the Justice Department issued a nonbinding guidance memo that discouraged prosecution of medical-marijuana operations that follow state laws.
In 2012, when Washington and Colorado passed initiatives legalizing marijuana, the states did not have assurances that the federal government would allow them to proceed.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee even sent a letter promising the federal government that Washington would be mindful and careful in creating a pot system.
Months later, the feds sent out a second memo that said they would not interfere with Colorado and Washington’s legalization policies if the states were attentive to guidelines from the Justice Department.
Still, the Justice Department reserved the ability to step in at any point or change its mind.
“This memorandum is intended solely as a guide to the exercise of investigative and prosecutorial discretion. This memorandum does not alter in any way the Department’s authority to enforce federal law, including federal laws relating to marijuana, regardless of state law.”
Simply put, the feds reserve the right to shut things down whenever they want. In theory, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) could raid legal, recreational stores under federal law. The legalization of medical marijuana would provide concrete protection for the state’s medical-marijuana program.
The political winds could change
Loretta Lynch, who is President Obama’s choice to succeed Eric Holder as attorney general, told the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation hearing she did not support legalization. Lynch also said she did not agree with the president’s characterization of marijuana as “not more dangerous than alcohol.”
Holder has allowed marijuana to flourish, but it’s not clear, if appointed, how Lynch would handle the issues. This legislation would prevent a legal challenge to states’ marijuana regulation.
Moreover, the 2016 presidential candidates are all over the map on marijuana. A new administration could roll back states’ marijuana-regulation implementations.
Jeb Bush, who classmates said “smoked a notable amount of pot,” in his prep-school days, opposed Florida’s medical-marijuana ballot initiative. He later said legalization was “a bad idea, but states ought to have the right to do it.”
Like Bush, Marco Rubio opposed his state’s medical-marijuana initiative.
In 2014, Rubio told the Tampa Bay Times, “I don’t think legalizing marijuana or even decriminalizing it is the right decision for our country.”
Hillary Clinton seems to be still forming her opinion. According to CNN, she called marijuana a “gateway drug” and said she wants to “wait and see” what happens with legalization at the state level.
Reclassifying pot allows more research
Marijuana advocates have long been frustrated with marijuana’s Schedule 1 designation. Cocaine, methamphetamine and methadone are all Schedule 2 drugs, meaning they are classified as having “less abuse potential” than marijuana, according to the DEA.
The bill would move marijuana to a Schedule 2 drug, acknowledging that it has some medical benefit and cut down some red tape around actually acquiring marijuana for research. Right now, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the DEA have a monopoly on marijuana supply for legal, federally funded research.
As a biotech state with progressive marijuana policies, Washington could be the beneficiary of research funding.
The state Senate recently passed a bill that would bolster cannabis research in Washington. Washington could have a head start if universities were comfortable seeking federal funding for cannabis research.
Paul said the bill would give marijuana businesses access to traditional banking services. A few credit unions have provided limited services to the marijuana industry, but some business owners have paid their taxes in cash, which they say is a security risk. In fact, the Washington Liquor Control Board had to retrofit its agency headquarters and build a secure cash room to protect its cash haul.
The new legislation would allow doctors providing care through the Veterans Health Administration to authorize marijuana for patients. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 600,000 veterans live in Washington state.