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Senators unveil groundbreaking, bipartisan medical marijuana bill

Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rand Paul unveiled arguably the most progressive medical marijuana legislation is history on Tuesday.
Jars of medical cannabis line the shelves inside a Good Meds medical cannabis center in Lakewood, Colo., U.S., on Monday, March 4, 2013. (Photo by Matthew Staver/For The Washington Post/Getty)
Jars of medical cannabis line the shelves inside a Good Meds medical cannabis center in Lakewood, Colo., U.S., on Monday, March 4, 2013.

Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Republican Sen. Rand Paul, unveiled arguably the most progressive medical marijuana legislation is history on Tuesday.

Their new bill — The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act — would end federal prohibition of medical marijuana and also introduce a host of other reforms aiming to curb restrictions on its transport, prescription and availability. 

“We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose — recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows," Booker told reporters at a press conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill. "Doctors and patients deserve federal laws that are fair and compassionate, and states should be able to set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference."

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"Otherwise law-abiding Americans — bankers, business people, veterans, families — are fearful of unnecessary, expensive, life-disrupting investigations and prosecutions," he added. "Today we join together to say enough is enough."

The legislation has drawn praise from drug policy reform advocates. “It’s the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill in Congress,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told the Washington Post on Monday.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) (L-R), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) hold a news conference, to introduce legislation that would prevent the federal government from prosecuting medical marijuana users in states where it is legal, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., March 10, 2015.

“It really is a comprehensive bill — it would effectively end the federal war on medical marijuana,” added Tom Angell, chairman of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, in the same report.

The Drug Enforcement Agency currently ranks marijuana in the same classification as heroin, LSD and ecstasy. The bill, if passed, would downgrade its classification by DEA standards and also make it easier to transport between states, more accessible to veterans and less stigmatized when it comes to banks providing loans to businesses that provide it.

“Current federal law turns its back on families in need of this medicine, which doctors want to prescribe to ease pain and suffering,” Gillibrand said on Tuesday. “Senators Booker, Paul and I agree that it’s time to modernize our laws and recognize the health benefits of medical marijuana. The CARERS Act will no longer put politicians between doctors and patients. It will let doctors do their job and give parents every available option to comfort their children.”

Paul joined in with his support. "For far too long, the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana and have prohibited Americans from receiving essential care that will alleviate their chronic pain and suffering," he told reporters on Tuesday. "I am proud today to stand with Sens. Gillibrand and Booker to introduce a bill that will fundamentally change our nation’s drug policies and have positive impacts on the lives of children and Veterans."

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The involvement of Booker and Gillibrand, two reliable Senate liberals, in this legislation may not come as a surprise, but potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate Rand Paul's participation is sure to raise some eyebrows. While Paul has teamed up with Booker before on their joint criminal justice reform bill, the REDEEM Act, his libertarian stance on drugs sets him apart from many of his likely opponents.

That said, the positions of many politicians from both sides of the political aisle have softened considerably on the issue. From President Barack Obama to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, there has been increasing bipartisan support for state-based legalization laws. And Alaska just recently joined Washington and Colorado as the third state to legalize pot for recreational use. Medical marijuana is currently legal in 23 states.

Still, a federal law legalizing medical marijuana would be unprecedented. As Angell recently told The Atlantic, "The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum."