A Rough Road Ahead for the CARERS Act

August 5, 2017

Though the CARERS Act shows more promise than previous bills seeking to reform federal cannabis laws, it has a rough road to travel before becoming law.  

In a rare glimmer of non-partisanship that is almost unheard of in today’s political climate, representatives from both sides of the aisle have put forth a piece of legislation with the potential to accomplish something truly remarkable. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is the most finely tuned attempt at cannabis policy reform in recent memory. 

Backed by more than 20 high-profile policy organizations, including the ACLU, Americans for Safe Access, Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies,  the excitement and optimism surrounding the bill is clearly palpable. Speaking to The Atlantic, Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell noted, "The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum." 

On the horizon

The changes that the passing of CARERS is set to bring are not easily overstated. As the government would refrain in interfering with businesses abiding by state laws, CARERS incentivizes the development of well-defined regulations of both medical and recreational markets at the state level. This will encourage states with flimsy regulations (such as California, which has no state-level regulatory mechanism at all, or Michigan, where dispensaries are technically illegal but hundreds exist anyway) to establish a far more coherent set of rules under which the industry operates, allowing the level of sophistication and innovation to take off.

The availability of financial services will lead to more rapid expansion for existing companies, and the availability of bank loans will make it far easier for new ones to break into the market. New medical discoveries resulting from deeper research will increase demand among health care providers, and eventually from the pharmaceutical industry. This will carry the added benefit of pushing public opinion even further towards legalization in states that are not there yet - a trend given even more momentum by the prospect of thousands of veterans finally receiving the help they need. This last point in particular should easily cross the political divide.

Political will or won’t

The co-sponsors of CARERS are far more evenly split between parties (7D, 7R) than those of the bill’s closest predecessor, The Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013. In addition, CARERS has an identical bill currently in the Senate that the 2013 bill did not. This is perhaps due to the fact that CARERS is targeting medical cannabis only and seeks no action in regards to recreational use – a far easier case to make to both the American public and Congressional naysayers. These are encouraging signs.

However, it would be folly to assume that the bill will be enacted any time soon, particularly in today’s historically unproductive Congress. Additionally, as momentum gathers for the 2016 presidential race, it is difficult to predict how each candidate will prioritize the issue of legalization. Although it is likely to receive greater attention than in the past, drug policy has rarely, if ever, been a “make or break” issue for a candidate.

Senator Paul is the only one to have taken a firm, positive stance on the issue, and his chances of winning the Republican nomination, much less the general election, are relatively slim.

Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both expressed a deep personal aversion to cannabis but are adept enough to at least pay lip service their party’s commitment to state sovereignty. Senator Rubio’s stance on legalization has been vague and non-committal, while that of Senator Cruz is now in direct contrast to his 2014 criticism of the Obama administration for not sufficiently enforcing federal prohibition laws in states that have legalized the drug.

Governors Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have strongly spoken out against legalization at any level and appear to be sticking to their guns on the issue. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for the presidency, has adopted a “wait and see” approach and is considered unreliable in her support for legalization.

In another less-than-encouraging note, the Library of Congress currently lists the CARERS Act as having only a 1% chance of even getting past committee in the House and Senate. In fact, between 2013 and 2015, only 15% of bills made it past committee and only about 3% were enacted.  

Secretary Clinton’s approach may be the best we can do for the time being.