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Pass It, Grassley: The CARERS Act and 2016

Senator Chuck Grassley in the Senate Discussing the CARERs Act


Pass It, Grassley: The CARERS Act and 2016

Assume bill dead?

The bill in question is the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act, better known as the CARERS Act, an historic bit of progressive, bipartisan cannabis legislation introduced last year by its United States Senate co-sponsors Rand Paul (R-KY), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Unfortunately, the bill has stalled in committee while Chuck Grassley dithers. Grassley, the six-term Senator from Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who’s also up for re-election this year, has yet to hold a hearing on the bill. Until that happens, advocates are left with limited options in the remaining year of this 114th Congress.

The less than ideal work-around within this Congress, said Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), would have been to reauthorize federal budget amendment riders last month that mimic provisions of CARERS. However, those did not survive the final budgetary process when time came to conference with the House. Armentano noted that the provision coming closest to passage was the McClintock/Polis amendment requiring the federal government to respect state medical cannabis laws. Amendments on access to medical marijuana for veterans and access to banking for cannabusinesses did not receive a vote.

Michael Collins, Policy Manager for Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, wrote last August that a majority of Senators would vote for CARERS if brought to the floor but that Grassley’s silent opposition remained its biggest obstacle. He told Cannabis Now that Grassley and CARERS remains a primary focus for DPA in 2016.

While continuing to work directly with Grassley’s staff on the Hill, Collins said DPA planned to influence the Senator in his home state by using donor and volunteer resources to engage his constituents at the local level. Organizing supporters to question Grassley about cannabis reform at town halls, encouraging volunteers to write local old-fashioned letters-to-the-editor to which a “99 county” retail politician like Grassley may be sensitive, and working within the Iowa legislature to push state-level cannabis reform beyond its CBD-only law are all on the table for his group’s efforts in 2016.

Robert Capecchi, Director of Federal Policy for Marijuana Policy Project, cited Grassley’s seeming favorable evolution on criminal justice reform as one potential reason for optimism about a similar move on cannabis.

“He seems to be quite open to the idea,” said Capecchi, adding that Grassley “is pretty open to his constituents.” That’s why MPP will also devote resources during 2016 to move Grassley within his home state on at least allowing a CARERS hearing. Like DPA and other advocacy groups, MPP will reach out to its Iowa members to set push the Senator locally. The once-every-six-years election helps, Capecchi said, since 75 to 80 percent of Iowans favor medical marijuana.

“It gives us a unique opportunity to get his thoughts on the record, more so than we otherwise would,” he observed, saying he’d “been very pleased so far” with the frequency and number of questions posed to candidates during the presidential campaign season, whether at debates or by voters on the trail. Collins echoed Capecchi, noting that marijuana reform has become enough of an issue among real people that some presidential candidates have “organically” expressed support. If that same organic interest in changing cannabis laws translates into more pointed questions and pressure from constituents, Grassley just might budge. Iowans are, after all, people whose version of Pizza Hut puts mayo on a pizza, and therefore tough to predict.

Another reason for optimism: although it’s true there is more support for cannabis reform among self-described liberals than conservatives generally, on the scale of charged partisan issues among voters in 2016, ending federal prohibition on pot ranks lowly. Reasons to support progressive cannabis reform abound “for people of all political persuasions,” said Capecchi.

If efforts to get a hearing on CARERS fail, the fallback as the year draws onward will be to help shape the 115th Congress. If in-state pressure fails to budge Grassley, and we can indeed “assume bill dead” while he’s chairman, the alternate possibility for reform is voters in November flipping the Senate back into Democratic hands, where under new chairmanship the landmark legislation could proceed.

Here’s what that would require. Currently, Republicans hold a 54-44 edge in Senate seats between the parties, although both independents caucus with Democrats to make the true edge 54-46. If Dems regain four or more seats while also retaining control of the White House – technically the Vice-Presidency – they would regain the majority they lost in 2014, another dismal midterm year. A less-likely scenario would see a Republican winning the White House while Democrats simultaneously gain at least five seats for an effective 51-49 voting edge or more.

Recently, Democrats have dominated higher-turnout general elections while Republicans have dominated lower-turnout midterms. That gives Democrats optimism that this year they can retake the Senate. First, they’ll have to defend Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada, as the pugnacious party leader is retiring. That appears to be a pure tossup race at this point, though the state as a whole has been trending Democratic in presidential elections, which could help the party keep the seat. The only other anticipated retiree as of now is Barbara Boxer in California, which appears to be a safe seat for Dems. The other place Dems are playing defense is Colorado, where Michael Bennet has a small but discernible advantage at this point in the contest.

However, to keep Grassley chairman, and assuming he continues to block reform, Republicans have to hold enough seats in Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Ohio, each of which is vulnerable to a varying degree. Florida and Arizona voters will likely have legalization measures before them, as well as possibly Ohio. The presidential primary battle on both sides is unsettled enough prior to the Iowa caucuses not to be able to predict the effect each party’s eventual nominee would have on overall turnout generally and within each state particularly.

In other words, there’s a long way to go to know whether Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) will retake the Judiciary chairmanship from Grassley a year from now, thereby allowing federal cannabis legislation to move ahead. Regardless of the Senate election outcomes, each of the two major Democratic candidates has pledged to make some forward progress. Hillary Clinton says she’d do a little. Bernie Sanders says he’d do a lot.

The bottom line? In 2016, it’s Grassley or bust for advocacy groups and their volunteers, but both the looming presidential election and statewide Senate elections in key states will provide leverage for Americans who want to see the nation’s cannabis laws change.

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