Maine law allows residents of all ages, from children with epilepsy to adults with post-traumatic stress disorder, to ease the impact of their ailments with medical cannabis. There’s a catch, though: Most Maine hospitals ban the drug for fear of federal penalties, as one patient recently found out when he had to leave his medication behind during a two-week stay at a Sanford hospital.

But both in Maine and nationwide, the outlook for medical-marijuana patients may be growing brighter. Both houses of Congress are poised to take up proposals to end the federal ban on medical marijuana, and passage of the legislation would be a major step forward for fairness and for compassion.

Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I drug; it has no known medical benefits and a “high capacity for abuse.” But Americans in Maine and 22 other states have found something quite different: Cannabis helps relieve their symptoms.

For example, Eric Chipman of Sanford, who suffered serious injuries in a 1976 motorcycle accident, uses cannabis to make a lotion. It doesn’t get him high, he says, but it does make it easier for him to use his hands. But Chipman was told he couldn’t use the lotion while he was at Southern Maine Medical Center for treatment of a blood infection.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, so hospitals that allow medical cannabis could lose federal certification and funding. The loss of his medicine has delayed his recovery, Chipman said, making it harder for him to care for himself and get in and out of his wheelchair.

Congress has taken small steps toward addressing the plight of Chipman and the several million other patients like him. The Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, a measure barring the use of Justice Department funds to target state-level medical-cannabis programs, first passed the House last year. This year, it was approved in the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee by wide margins.

Rohrabacher-Farr, though, has to be reauthorized every year. Substantive, lasting change depends on passage in Congress of the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act. The CARERS Act will expand researchers’ access to medical marijuana; reclassify it as a Schedule II drug (a controlled substance that has legitimate medical purposes and can be prescribed); allow doctors to recommend its use to veterans in states like Maine, where medical cannabis is legal; and make it easier for banks to provide services to the industry.

Making marijuana a prescription drug validates its use and could encourage hospitals to let patients use doctor-recommended cannabis preparations, like tinctures or Chipman’s lotion. It would also allow Maine families to obtain the nonpsychoactive cannabis derivatives that help their children’s epilepsy without having to relocate.

Independent Angus King is a co-sponsor of the CARERS Act in the Senate. Republican Susan Collins backed the one-year Justice Department cease-fire in the Senate Appropriations Committee in June – the same month that Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, voted for it in the House. Mainers should speak up and support their members of Congress in their efforts to help patients access the care they need, when they need it, without fear of federal prosecution.

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