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editorial

US Senate bill shows a way forward for marijuana laws

One of the controversies surrounding the legalization of marijuana has been the question of how, exactly, the business would be regulated. It’s clearly on the minds of Massachusetts legislators, who are now sponsoring a legalization bill that they say would avoid the vagaries of a referendum question proposed by advocates for the November 2016 ballot. And the uncharted nature of marijuana legislation is clearly what has held up the opening of medical marijuana dispensaries in the Commonwealth, even though voters approved the regulated sale of medical marijuana in 2012. (The possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in Massachusetts in 2008.) Eleven dispensaries have been licensed by the state Department of Health, but as yet none has opened.

Now an unusual bipartisan coalition is sponsoring a bill in the US Senate that could clear some of the hurdles for medical marijuana in the states where it is legal. The core provision of the bill – sponsored by Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky — calls for reclassifying marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, from a Schedule I drug to Schedule II. Schedule I drugs are those that have no medical use, such as heroin. Schedule II are those with legitimate medical use but with the potential for abuse, such as prescription painkillers.

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The bill stops short of legalizing marijuana, but it does remove medical marijuana from the purview of the Justice Department, and thus releases those who sell, prescribe, or consume it from the threat of federal prosecution, including doctors, pharmacists, and caregivers. In effect, it leaves marijuana law up to individual states.

That might not sound like much, but it has important ramifications, even in states with some form of legalized marijuana. For one, the banking industry, which has been leery of getting involved with any form of marijuana business, needn’t fear the feds. This has been a huge issue for medical marijuana dispensaries and retail businesses in states where the drug is legalized — unable to secure bank or credit accounts, these businesses have been forced to trade in large amounts of cash, making them susceptible to robbery and violent crime. The bill would also allow medical marijuana dispensaries to declare standard business deductions to the IRS, something that’s currently forbidden. What’s more, Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers could no longer refuse treatment to a patient who tests positive for marijuana use and, in fact, VA doctors would be allowed to prescribe marijuana. The pharmaceutical industry would likewise be freed from legal constraints in the production and sale of cannabis products. Marijuana could then be cultivated for laboratory testing and medical research, something that’s been an issue for both proponents and opponents of legalization, who have demanded more real data in terms of potency and long-term health effects.

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Some marijuana proponents give the Senate bill little chance of becoming law. But the bill should actually appeal to conservatives — it does get the federal government out of the states’ business. In the meantime, it gives states like Massachusetts — and the 34 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that have all legalized medical marijuana in some form — more freedom in implementing and living up to their own laws. In Massachusetts, where medical marijuana has been hobbled by bureaucracy, that would be good news indeed.