You may have heard of the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015, better known as the CARERS Act. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the legislation (S. 683) in the Senate on March 10, 2015, and about two weeks later, a companion bill by the same name was introduced in the house by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-Alaska).
The legislation would not legalize medical marijuana, but would allow states to set their own medical marijuana policies. It would recognize a legitimate use for marijuana at the federal level, and allow Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend marijuana-related treatments. It also would allow access to banking services for state-legal marijuana-related businesses, and open the door to research into marijuana’s medicinal properties.
The House bill (H.R. 1538) had gained 16 co-sponsors through the end of April last year, before things began to slow. On April 21, 2015, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, where it still sits, and no new sponsors signed on in support of the bill for six months.
More recently, however, the bill has been gaining momentum in the form of new, bipartisan sponsors. Since October 2015, the bill has gained 20 more sponsors, with six new co-sponsors in April alone. In all, the House bill now has 36 co-sponsors (at press time).
The Senate bill now has 17 co-sponsors.
Cannabis Business Times Editor Noelle Skodzinski talked with Robert J. Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project — an organization that has been working to end marijuana prohibition for more than 20 years — about what the recent bout of increased support, particularly for H.R. 1538, means for the bills’ future.
Noelle Skodzinski: Do you think this increase in support for the House bill indicates that we will see some action on it soon?
Robert J. Capecchi: It's pretty clear that support in both major parties and across the country is growing for at least medical marijuana, if not for just major marijuana policy reform. You've got individuals [signing on] from … New Mexico, most recently, … but then two days before that Representative [Thomas] Massie from Kentucky — a Republican from Kentucky! So you have people from states with robust medical marijuana programs …and from states that lack any legal access. … So it's certainly a positive trend to see this building support. And it's even more positive … that it's coming from both parties.
What that says about the CARERS’ chances of … moving this year is tricky. There's no guarantee that legislation that's introduced gets a hearing or vote. … Really, it's the call of the committee chairs.
Right now, Senator [Chuck] Grassley has the gavel in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is where the [Senate] bill was assigned, and, to date, hasn't indicated any willingness to give the bill a hearing. It’s unfortunate ... because he's got a bill ... that's supported by – depending on what poll you're looking at — 70, 80, even 90 percent of the American population [who support medical marijuana]. And — he’s sitting on it.
Skodzinski: The bill is listed [on Congress.gov] as having a 1-percent chance of passing. Do its chances increase now that it has 37 co-sponsors?
Capecchi: Yes and no. Yes, just because it certainly demonstrates that it's got greater support in the chambers than it had, but there are obstacles … totally unrelated to the legislation itself that probably still stand in the way of this bill moving — first and foremost being the intransigence and not holding hearings for the Supreme Court nominee. That's … gumming up the Senate Judiciary Committee from doing really any work. And it would have to come out of that committee first … to get to the Senate floor.
It doesn't hurt, obviously, to have more people come on board. And it's good for history moving forward.
Skodzinski: The Senate bill has gained only two new co-sponsors since July last year. Why do you think the growth of support in the House is not necessarily reflected in the Senate?
Capecchi: I think traditionally the Senate is a more deliberative body than the House. … I don't have any reason to think that there's not support in the Senate for medical marijuana. I think that if you did a blind vote in both chambers, it would pass incredibly easily. I actually think that probably would happen on state's rights or full marijuana policy …, but these votes aren't blind, unfortunately.
Skodzinski: What do you really think the chances of the CARERS Act passing in both houses this year are?
Capecchi: I would say slim to none, unfortunately. But I don't think that should be viewed as a defeat. … The 114th Congress is the first time ever that the Senate has introduced robust medical marijuana legislation. And there are … 17 co-sponsors of 100 members, so 17 percent in the first cycle. So I wouldn't think that passage should be deemed the only measure of success.