CARERS Act: Panacea Or Pipe Dream?

american flag with courtroom gavel

On March 10 of this year, three U.S. senators proposed a legislative solution to the federal obstacle against legalization of marijuana nationwide on a state-by-state basis. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D-N.Y.], Sen. Rand Paul [R-Ky.] and Sen. Cory Booker [D-N.J.] joint-sponsored the CARERS ACT and introduced it in the Senate during the 114th Congress as S.683, causing a groundswell of public support and cannabis industry optimism. Since that time, the bill has been cosponsored by sixteen of the 100 active senators, but the initial optimism among informed insiders is fading quickly.

The Compassionate Access Research Expansion and Respect States Act (CARERS) would enact six critical changes to the way federal law handles the production, distribution, and consumption of cannabis. First, it would direct the federal government to abide by the laws of each state and prevent it from prosecuting individuals for actions deemed legal under state law. While President Obama has expressed support for such measures, those comments do not have the force of law behind them. The CARERS Act would fix that and in doing so provide much-needed stability to the industry at a critical point in its development.


The CARERS Act would also reclassify cannabis as a Schedule II substance with legitimate medical uses, removing it from the Schedule I classification that is intended for non-medical narcotics like heroin and cocaine. It would also completely de-schedule low-THC CBD medications with 0.3 percent THC content or less, allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical marijuana for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and permit legally licensed research and development operations to pursue grants or government funding.

As significantly, it would legitimize the legal cannabis sector by immediately eliminating all restrictions on banking, payment processing, and credit card transactions. This would normalize the commercial sale of legal marijuana nationwide and allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for medical purposes, which would also eventually lead to some level of medical insurance coverage.

Following its introduction, the bill was immediately referred to the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Chuck Grassley [R-Iowa], who is no friend to cannabis legalization. Worse, of the 20 senators on the Judiciary Committee, only Sen. Charles Schumer [D-N.Y.] has taken affirmative action to co-sponsor the CARERS Act.

According to a Des Moines Register cover story published the day after the CARERS Act was announced, Grassley said he opposes the bill because it is too broad in scope. “I oppose moving marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, based on the current science on the risks and benefits,” he said in a statement released by his staff. “Recent studies suggest marijuana use by young people can cause long-term and possibly permanent damage to brain development.” However, he also added, “For children suffering from severe epileptic seizures, the anecdotal evidence says components of the marijuana plant might help. I want to help those children. The key is aggressive medical research.”

Despite Grassley’s claim, no state has ever suggested legalizing marijuana for “young people.” Meanwhile, alcoholic beverages remain legal to adults nationwide due to a constitutional amendment that overturned prohibition—even though extensive research has shown alcohol is far worse for “young people” than legal cannabis.

Ironically, Grassley’s home state of Iowa has a limited medical marijuana regime that allows possession of a special marijuana extract for people with severe epilepsy, but it does not provide any legal means for in-state distribution, leaving patients who transport it in from another state at the mercy of law enforcement.

As Sen. Gillibrand explained in a speech on the senate floor, “Until we change our federal laws, doctors can’t prescribe this medicine to children who need it…even in states where it is legal. Until we change the federal laws, scientists will still face barriers to researching medical marijuana and the most effective way to use it…even in states where it is legal. Until we change the federal laws, parents like Missy are stuck watching their children suffer through hundreds of seizures a day…even in states where medical marijuana is legal. Let’s do our jobs. Let’s pass a new, modern law on medical marijuana that respects state laws, that respects modern scientific research, and that respects our families.”

While the current legislative inertia in Congress makes it seem as though America’s best chance to pass meaningful federal cannabis reform may be another pipe dream, groups such as Americans for Safe Access and others are actively working to gain more support in Congress. Indeed, the fact that such a bill remains alive is a testament to the efforts of countless supporters who realize the CARERS Act is an idea whose time has come.