The historic marijuana bill debuted by three senators Tuesday is one small step for marijuana patients and one giant leap for science.
The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act is a multi-pronged approach at easing the tension between states and the federal government. The foundation of it is simple: a proposal to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I substance (like heroin) to a Schedule II substance (like Adderall).
Supported by Senators Rand Paul, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Corey Booker, the bill would render the hyper-restrictive Controlled Substances Act (CSA) inapplicable to individuals who legally medicate with marijuana and the dispensaries who provide it. If passed, it would permit the 23 states (and the District of Columbia) where medical marijuana is legal to enforce the laws they’ve passed without fear of prosecution.
Beyond shielding the patients, doctors, and distributors from archaic laws, the bill would open the door to medical research on the drug that has been banned for decades.
Under the DEA’s current structure, testing Schedule I substances is near impossible. In two decades, just 15 researchers in the U.S. have made it through the process to gain approval. Even if a research is granted permission to test (which many cannot even procure the huge funds necessary to apply), another huge hurdle awaits.
As of today, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the only entity with the power to provide cannabis for testing. The organization, devoted to stopping drug abuse, is a reluctant provider. The team maintains just one cannabis grow center, at the University of Mississippi, and its small marijuana crops produce low-grade, freeze-dried cannabis that is often unsuitable for testing.
Dr. Sue Sisley, the only researcher in the U.S. with permission to test cannabis, has lived through this research nightmare. After receiving approval to test marijuana on veterans with PTSD, she was swiftly fired from the University of Arizona (where the study was to be conducted) because of the stigma surrounding it.
After moving the study to Colorado, she ran into more trouble, unable to procure two of the four plants she needed. Without this crucial piece of the study, Sisley was forced to move it to Israel, where she was located when news of the bill arrived.
The news was exciting to Sisley, who was particularly interested in the provision to amend the research process. If passed, the bill would nominate other entities (instead of just NIDA) to issue test-grade cannabis and end the public health service review that obstructs the approval process. In other words, if the bill passes, stories like Sisley’s will be history.
While she’s hopeful this will pass, she’s all too aware of what we’ve lost in the waiting period. In the years since she began her study, aimed at helping veterans cope with their return, more than 24,000 of them have committed suicide.
Still, the news is huge.
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