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Medical Marijuana Gains Momentum in US Senate

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Pressure is mounting on U.S. Senate leadership to address the growing gap between state medical marijuana policies and federal law.

Last week, former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC) co-sponsored the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, a comprehensive bill aimed at easing the implementation of state medical marijuana programs.

And on Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) visited a medical marijuana dispensary in his home state and announced that he too would soon sign on.

The bill, introduced last March by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rand Paul (R-KY), would reschedule marijuana, protect banks that provide financial services to state-legal cannabis businesses, lift restrictions on marijuana research, allow for the interstate importation of cannabidiol (CBD)-rich strains and authorize V.A. doctors to recommend medical cannabis to military veterans, among other changes.

Not counting Murphy, who isn’t officially listed as signed on yet, the legislation currently has 16 co-sponsors, including three Republicans. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a longtime vocal opponent of reforming drug laws, is also on board.

companion bill introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) has 30 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

The new Senate support adds to growing momentum behind the legislation. The support from Graham, a high ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is particularly meaningful. The CARERS Act is now before that panel, but Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has given no indication he will schedule a hearing or allow a vote.

Graham’s position on marijuana, like that of many elected officials, appears to be evolving.

While serving in the U.S. House, he voted for a 1998 resolution “expressing the sense of Congress that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug and should not be legalized for medicinal use.”

Last May Graham voted against a Senate Appropriations Committee amendment to allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans.

But in June, he expressed support for an amendment to prevent DEA interference in state medical cannabis laws. Although he missed a committee vote on the measure and the chairman entered a proxy “no” for him, Graham later made it clear he was in favor. “A no by proxy vote was cast in error,” he said. “While the language in this amendment needs to be clarified to ensure that states are limited to purely medicinal uses of marijuana, I do believe that medical marijuana holds promise and support this amendment.”

Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access told Marijuana.com in an interview that Graham’s evolution could be a sign of things to come.

“We think Senator Graham could be a bellwether to further support from fellow Republican members of the Judiciary Committee,” he said. “Since 2015 we have seen several members of that committee begin to evolve on medical cannabis when introduction of the CARERS Act forced offices to take a closer look at the issue.”

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive medical cannabis programs, and another 17 states allow for nonpsychoactive cannabis preparations that are rich in CBD, which has been shown to help people suffering from severe seizure disorders.

Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on state Senate-passed legislation to create a comprehensive medical marijuana program. Gov Tom Wolf (D) has pledged to sign it into law.

As more state laws come online and public support increases, pressure continues to mount on Congress to amend federal law.

“We look forward to more of Senator Graham’s Republican colleagues joining him and the 85% of Americans who support safe and legal access to medical cannabis,” Liszewski said.

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