Usually House members take the lead on marijuana policy, but recently a bipartisan and ideologically diverse group of six senators introduced legislation that would allow the laws legalizing medical marijuana in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam to supersede the current federal prohibition on weed.
The legislation, titled the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act, or the CARERS ACT for short, would switch how federal prohibition trumps states laws, a system that proponents say is outdated. This bill would flip the current arrangement on its head, finally letting state laws prevail.
The mood in Congress is changing, directly do with how voters in many states have given opponents of cannabis legalization the political cover or possibly even marching orders to follow through on what their constituents approved at the ballot box.
"I voted against the legalization, but our state voted overwhelmingly to support it," Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said. "And so what I've been trying to do is figure out a way to respect what the state has done, both with medical marijuana and with recreational use. And right now it's very confusing."
She says the confusion stems from having a law and regulatory regime at the state level that is at odds with federal statutes. Alaska already legalized medical marijuana before 52 percent of voters cast ballots to legalize it for recreational use too.
"This is an interesting issue for me," she claimed, "Because it's not one that I support, but when your state votes so overwhelmingly in favor of something, by initiative I have to respect that. So that's kind of where I am right now."
Proponents say the CARERS Act is the first step. That's why they kept it narrowly focused on medical marijuana and didn't wade into the stickier issue of recreation weed, which has been approved in eight states and the nation's capital. But some supporters eventually want to extend it to recreational pot, and to other areas, like restrictions on banking that force marijuana businesses to be all-cash businesses.
"One of the issues that I find really concerning is the conflict that we see play out with the banking laws," Murkowski says. You have vendors that are working within the state laws, and we've set up some pretty clear and firm regulations regarding all aspects of sale and distribution. And so, what then happens, you got your vendor who is working within the law and they are successful. They want to pay their taxes. But there's no mechanism for handling this money because the banks won't touch it. So you then have security issues, unsafe situations. So again, trying to figure out how you respect the will of the states but at the same time recognizing that the federal laws set up a conflict."
The last thing the CARERS Act does is it allows people in states where weed remains illegal at all levels to access CBD or Cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic substance found in cannabis, which is viewed by many patients as a miracle drug. In particular, people with epilepsy, especially children, report it can radically reduce the number of seizures they endure regularly. Just last month the New-England Journal of Medicine released a study showing a reduction of seizures and overall improvement in the health of 62 percent of the children they studied while giving them CBD. Supporters say that work is groundbreaking.
"When you talk about how this affects your child, and how their lives are so significantly better, it's irrefutable. It is so compelling," Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another original co-sponsor of the bill, tells Rolling Stone. "I believe things are changing and they're changing fast. So I think we will get the support we need, we just need to keep telling these stories and urging people across America, to speak out and speak out on social media, to tell your personal stories. Because it is those stories that will literally push this country to passing that law."