CARERS Act Finds New Life a Year After Its Birth

Published on March 30, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

A little more than a year after its introduction, and months after watching it slowly wither and lose traction, the CARERS Act is gaining new support — from even the conservative side of the aisle.

Once considered the nation’s most important and comprehensive piece of legislation on medical marijuana, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act of 2015 was written off as a lost cause in December when Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) refused to give the bill a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For Iowa voters, Grassley’s reluctance to consider a medical marijuana bill comes as no surprise. He was elected to the Senate in 1980, and his voting record over the past 36 years is a study in vehement anti-drug opposition.

In the year since it was introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the act has gained an additional 15 co-sponsors. Former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), threw his weight behind the bill on March 10 — one year to the day since the act was introduced.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) signed on just days later, renewing vigor for the once-forgotten bill.

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Leafly caught up with Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, to get his perspective on the act’s prospects and what advocates can do to bring change to drug policy nationwide.

Leafly: What brought about this renewed action on the CARERS Act?

Michael Collins: Prior to the bill’s introduction a year ago, there was no real discussion of marijuana going on in the Senate. This was the first bill of its kind, so it’s generated a lot of conversation and discussion. What we really focused on this summer was the Appropriations Committee process, because through that we could do a series of test votes for parts of the CARERS Act. There was a vote on veterans’ access to medical marijuana. There was a vote on allowing states to set their own medical marijuana policies. And there was a vote on banking. That was the first time the Senate had voted on any marijuana legislation in recent memory. All three of those provisions passed. If you look at Sen. Graham, for example, he was someone who was on the Appropriations Committee. He then voted to allow states to set their own policy. That enabled us to go and have a conversation with his office about, “Wow, you’ve already supported the main thrust of the bill, letting states set their own marijuana policies. You should be signed on to this legislation.”

Do you think Sen. Grassley will eventually hold a hearing on CARERS?

Sen. Grassley had a hearing on medical marijuana last summer, despite not supporting the CARERS Act. How do I put this? He’s shown more interest in medical marijuana than ever before. A lot of that is because he had a hearing in the Narcotics Committee that he chairs, on marijuana and research, that Sen. Booker and Sen. Gillibrand attended.

If you look at Sen. Grassley’s starting position on the issue of medical marijuana, which was a “Hell no, not interested, over my dead body” sort of attitude, he has shifted a lot. He’s much more engaged in the issue, and the staff we meet with are much more engaged in the issue. They understand that there are genuine research values, whether or not he’s ready to move the bill yet.

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He’s definitely had a lot of pressure from his own constituents to take action on this. I know there have been a number of meetings with constituents. In person and when he goes to town halls, he always gets questions on medical marijuana. He and Dianne Feinstein have sent letters back and forth to the administration about research values, some of the values we identify in the CARERS Act. There’s common ground there. There’s an interest there that we continue to build Republican support for this. Because if you put this bill on the floor, it would pass. It’s just a matter of getting on the floor.

But it can’t get to the floor without passing through the Senate Judiciary Committee, correct?

Well, unless someone decided to offer it up as an amendment. But I don’t see that as likely. It pretty much has to go through the Judiciary Committee.

What’s the most important action voters can take to support the CARERS Act and encourage bipartisan support?

If you’re in a state where you have a Republican senator, emailing their office and calling their office is super helpful. If you yourself are a medical marijuana patient or know someone who is a medical marijuana patient, write an op-ed or letter to the editor about why you support this bill and why your senator should support it. That’s also something that’s very helpful. I know in Iowa there have been a number of op-eds that have been posted around patients calling on Sen. Grassley to hold a vote on the legislation.

What we’re trying to do is add more Republicans to the bill. That puts more pressure on Sen. Grassley to do something. When colleagues like Sen. Graham, who is on the Judiciary Committee and is a very well-respected, moderate Republican, come on as co-sponsors, I think that raises eyebrows and brings more people closer to signing on.

The Drug Policy Alliance is actively campaigning to rally support for the CARERS Act, with a new petition demanding Grassley schedule a hearing for the act.
Here is a full list of Senate co-sponsors for the CARERS Act:

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
  • Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)
  • Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
  • Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)
  • Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)
  • Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.)
  • Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.)
  • Sen. Angus King, Jr. (I-Maine)
  • Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)
  • Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
  • Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
  • Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

Is your senator on this list? If not, please take the time to contact your senator and urge them to sign on to this important piece of legislation — especially if you hail from a red state! Your senator’s signature could mean the difference between the CARERS bill dying in committee and it moving forward to the Senate floor and making history.

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Lisa Rough
Lisa Rough
Lisa is a former associate editor at Leafly, where she specialized in legislative cannabis policy and industry topics.
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