This week, a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held a hearing on medical marijuana with two of the most outspoken pro-cannabis Senators testifying on the benefits of the plant. The hearing was titled “researching the Potential Medical Benefits and Risks of Marijuana,” a far cry from the anti-marijuana rhetoric of past hearings like the one called “Protecting the Public from the Impact of State Recreational Marijuana Legalization.”
Chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is also a supporter of medical marijuana research. He chaired the hearing that had as many Senators testifying as there were present to listen to the testimony.
“Congress needs to take a stand because 25 states and Washington, D.C. have…,” Sen. Graham continued, “I think it would be good for Congress to get involved and give some direction.”
The southern Republican signed on as the sixteenth co-sponsor (only the third Republican) of the CARERS Act back in March. The CARERS Act stands for the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683), it’s a bill aimed to help veterans get access to the medicine and grant access to medical research through rescheduling the drug. It was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Both lawmakers were present to testify at the hearing.
Pro-cannabis organizations like Americans for Safe Access, were delighted at the implications of a southern Republican lending his support for the most comprehensive medical marijuana bill to date. “This development should finally compel fellow Republican and Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley to allow the bill a vote”, ASA said in a statement. However, the uphill battle continues for a vote, and access for researchers and patients.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and he did stop by to submit his testimony for the record. The carefully worded document reveals that he is a proponent of more research into Cannabidiol (CBD), but not psychoactive marijuana. He mentioned the word ‘CBD’ sixteen times, compared to only eight mentions of the word ‘marijuana’ in his testimony. Even though he does admit CBD is derived from the marijuana plant. Sen. Grassley also called for some of the federal barriers to be taken down, “To the extent possible, I believe we should be encouraging responsible, FDA-approved research on CBD and other parts of the marijuana plant.”
Not to be confused with smoked marijuana, Sen. Grassley sides with CBD research. “But legitimate, medical research shouldn’t be confused at all with smoking marijuana for recreational purposes, which the science tells us can be harmful and addictive, especially for young people,” he wrote.
Sen. Graham was more open to hearing about medical marijuana and how it’s providing relief for people in dire straits – he was also very concerned about its reputation as a gateway drug.
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Direction is much needed when it comes to marijuana policy on the Hill. “The federal government needs to get its marijuana prohibition policies out of our doctors’ offices and exam rooms,” said Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach for the Marijuana Policy Project. Politics play a big role in the direction of legalization because the drug is currently a Schedule I substance and therefore very, very difficult to obtain permissions and grants to conduct clinical research.
Graham and Grassley are the minority when it comes to Republicans and their relationship with cannabis. The Republican National Committee just came out with their platform for the upcoming presidential elections and they chose not to endorse medical marijuana. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, gave a surprising amount of support and endorsed the rescheduling of cannabis with a “reasoned pathway to future legalization.”
Ranking Member of the subcommittee, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), was empathetic to the pro-medical marijuana cause, specifically marijuana research and efforts to topple barriers to research. The hurdles facing marijuana researchers are staggering, he said. Even joking about how federally approved marijuana has to be stored in a “kryptonite proof” safe. It was a moment of levity amid two hours of frustration.
Sen. Booker came to the defense of medical research, alongside fellow CARERS Act sponsor Sen. Gillibrand. His testimony before Sens. Graham and Whitehouse hit on all the points of frustration among the pro-cannabis medical community. “No one should have a life of pain when a possible treatment is available and they are barred from accessing it,” said Booker. Its scientific inquiry, and we must embrace pathways to research – and with a sense of urgency because people are suffering. Sen. Booker called the denial of medicine “sheer madness” in the face of what’s going on in this country. He also asked for the passage of his proposed legislation, the CARERS Act. It’s time to fix our broken drug policy and start making decisions rooted in fact and evidence, said Booker.
Sen. Gillibrand is a cannabis patient advocate, especially for the children who need CBD medicine to curb their life-threatening seizures. She explained the catch-22 when it comes to researching the Schedule I drug, “Some are saying to wait for research but the one thing blocking the research is the law.” She told the Senators holding the hearing how the DEA, through NIDA, allows the University of Mississippi to control the entire federal cannabis research monopoly. Politicians can no longer deny there are effects of cannabis on patients, she said, it’s unacceptable that only two researchers got the cannabis for patient research last year. New reports of data from states with medical marijuana are reflecting Medicare costs are down, and opiate-related deaths have decreased.
“We know marijuana should be an option,” said Sen. Booker. Marijuana has shown effective in helping patients, veterans, children, and thousands of suffering Americans. From chronic pain to Parkinson’s disease (Booker’s father suffered and died from the debilitating disease) federal policy in this arena is out of step with what exists on the state level. It defies logic that the federal government says the plant has no medical value. “In fact, we are in the midst of an opioid abuse epidemic when even highly addictive opioids are not listed as Schedule 1 but as Schedule 2, and marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug.”
For stalwarts like Sens. Booker and Gillibrand, marijuana prohibition is impeding innovation and potential lifesaving research. Conservatives like Sen. Graham, who support research, are still weary of stigmas and propaganda. “There is a chance for abuse here, we don’t know what we are doing,” said Sen. Graham. One thing both sides of the aisle can agree upon is that policy should be informed by robust research.