Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., was one of three senators Tuesday unveiling a measure to end the federal prohibition of medical marijuana, leaving states to decide legality for themselves without fear of federal prosecution.
Flanked at a Capitol news conference by an array of individuals with disabilities and family members, Gillibrand said "they are simply asking Congress to do its job, take care of American kids.''
Co-sponsoring the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act were Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.
The three senators pointed to evidence that marijuana is helpful in alleviating the discomforts of chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, glaucoma and epilepsy -- notwithstanding its status as a DEA Schedule I drug, the top danger category that includes heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
"We don't want doctors to be punished for simply trying to help people,'' said Paul, himself a physician and possible 2016 Republican presidential contender.
Medical marijuana is in varying degrees legal in the District of Columbia and 23 states, including New York and Connecticut.
Under New York's Compassionate Care Act, signed into law by Gov. Cuomo last year, five licensed operators can each operate four dispensaries -- a total of 20 outlets in a state with a population of nearly 20 million. In addition, the law bans consumption of medical marijuana through smoking.
Under Connecticut's law, signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2012, 2,600 residents have been certified for medical marijuana treatment to help control a variety of ailments including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Last month, state officials said they would add three new ailments to the list of diseases treatable through medical marijuana.
Connecticut's six legal dispensaries are supplied by four licensed growers.
The CARERS Act would place marijuana on the DEA's Schedule II drug list along with cocaine, methamphetamine and addictive opioids such as OxyContin. The designation would permit research into marijuana's medical efficacy. By contrast, a Schedule I designation means a drug has "no currently accepted medical use.''
The Obama administration has gone back and forth on purveyors of medical marijuana, but now is shying away from prosecuting any such cases.
The law would not force states to accept medical marijuana, but would clarify that dispensaries and users in states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes would not face federal sanctions.
For veterans, the law would allow VA doctors to prescribe marijuana for treatment purposes.
It would also lift federal bars to the medical marijuana industry's use of banking and credit cards, requiring purveyors to conduct their businesses in cash only.
"This is clearly a case of ideology getting in the way of scientific progress,'' Gillibrand said. "The government should not prevent doctors from prescribing medicine that has been shown to work.''
The proposal faces an uphill climb in Congress, particularly in the House where conservative Republicans are locked in combat with the District of Columbia over D.C.'s law legalizing marijuana.
Gillibrand suggested the plight of families and individuals in need of medical marijuana ultimately would trump Senate opposition.
"I dare any senator to speak to the patients here and say they don't deserve the medicine their doctors have prescribed,'' she said.
She also attempted to debunk the common image used by opponents of aging weed-smokers using sore shoulders and other minor ailments as guises for obtaining legal pot.
One cannabis-based oil, cannabidiol, does not cause a "high,'' Gillibrand said, and has been shown to be effective against seizures.
Among those joining Gillibrand and the other senators was Kate Hintz of North Salem, N.Y., and her four-year-old daughter, Morgan, who suffers from a form of epilepsy.
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