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Senate Drug Warrior Supports Medical Marijuana Bill

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One of Congress’s most ardent supporters of the so-called “war on drugs” surprised many medical cannabis supporters by adding his name to a comprehensive reform bill on Monday.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who has long championed harsh drug penalties and opposed efforts to reform marijuana laws, signed on as a co-sponsor of the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act of 2015.

The legislation, known as the CARERS Act, would reschedule marijuana, allow banks to provide financial services to state-legal cannabis businesses, lift restrictions on marijuana research, permit the interstate importation of CBD-rich cannabis preparations and grant V.A. doctors the ability to recommend medical marijuana to military veterans, among other changes.

The bill now 15 has senators on board, including two Republicans.

Schumer’s support for medical marijuana comes in contrast to decades of work on Capitol Hill to ramp up drug penalties and oppose reforms.

“The fact that tough-on-crime Democrat such as Senator Schumer has become a cosponsor of the CARERS Act shows how truly mainstream the issue of medical marijuana is today,” Mike Liszewski, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access, told Marijuana.com. He added that support from Schumer, who is the third-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate and is widely expected to take over as minority leader when Harry Reid retires at the end of the current Congressional session, “shows that the CARERS Act is viable and on the minds of leadership.”

While this is the first time Schumer has cosponsored legislation to reform marijuana laws, he has given indications over the past year that his position is evolving.

In an interview with MSNBC last January, he said it is a “good idea” to let states move ahead with implementing legalization without federal interference. “We now have the states as laboratories, different states at different levels. Colorado and Washington sort of opened the door,” he said. “I’d be a little cautious here at the federal level and see the laboratories of the states, see their outcomes before we make a decision.”

In September, he joined fellow New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, also a Democrat, in urging the federal government to grant their state a waiver to import CBD-rich cannabis preparations to treat children suffering from severe seizure disorders. New York has a medical marijuana law, but its implementation has been slow.

“We urge the Department of Justice, using adequate safeguards to keep it out of the black market, to provide this waiver so that some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers can have a measure of relief from their suffering,” Schumer said at the time.

Gillibrand is one of the original sponsors of the CARERS Act, and her leadership on the issue may be one of the main reasons Schumer is adding his name to the bill. Schumer, the state’s senior senator, has taken Gillibrand under his wing and served as a mentor of sorts, according to reports. He regularly includes her name in press releases announcing state projects for which he has secured federal funding, and helping to generate momentum for her medical marijuana proposal could be seen as the latest assist to his home-state colleague.

Reform advocates feel confident that the bill can pass if it is brought to the Senate floor, but that might be a tough hurdle to clear.

The legislation is stuck for now in the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Chuck Grassley. The Iowa Republican has recently pushed to reduce barriers to medical marijuana research, but has said he opposes rescheduling the drug “based on the current science on the risks and benefits.” He has not committed to hold a hearing or a vote on CARERS.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in an email that the bill “has enormous momentum. We’re pretty sure we have the votes to pass it; we just need Judiciary Chairman Grassley to stop standing in the way of reform.”

Dan Riffle of the Marijuana Policy Project agreed that most senators would likely vote in favor of reform if given the chance. “You’d be hard pressed to find an issue where there’s more bipartisan consensus than medical marijuana, or an area where Chuck Grassley is more out of touch,” he said.

For now, the support from Schumer seems likely to give the bill a boost, perhaps spurring other senators to add their names as cosponsors. If that happens, it may convince Grassley to let the bill move though his committee.

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