Marijuana legalization got a boost on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as a trio of rising stars in the Senate launched an effort to rewrite federal drug laws.
The push to decriminalize at least the medical use of marijuana came from Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Their move comes as another sign of how rapidly the politics of marijuana are shifting on Capitol Hill. Long an issue avoided by lawmakers with big political ambitions, marijuana legalization now presents opportunities to make inroads with new voters.
More than half of the American electorate now live in places where medical marijuana is legal, and millions of those voters are in states where recreational use is also permitted.
Under the proposal by the three senators, the federal prohibition on medical marijuana would be lifted. States that allow it would no longer be operating in defiance of federal law.
"We as a society are changing our opinions on restricting people's choices as far as medical treatments," Paul said. "We don't want doctors to be punished for simply trying to help people."
Though the Obama administration has ordered federal agencies to stop raiding legitimate medical cannabis enterprises -- and Congress last year cut off funds for any such busts -- federal law continues to inhibit the medical marijuana industry.
The senators' legislation aims to end the uncertainty around marijuana law, enabling legitimate pot businesses to access loans from banks, researchers to explore cannabis as a pharmaceutical, and physicians to use the drug as part of their treatment regimen.
"My guess is even more tax money will be paid if [marijuana businesses] are allowed to put money in banks and not brown bags," Paul said.
The proposal embraces policy ideas from advocacy groups that have long been on the sidelines of Congress, including the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project.
A linchpin of the plan is reclassification of marijuana, which the federal government currently places in the most dangerous category of narcotics, treating it as more harmful than cocaine. Pot would be moved into a less restrictive category, creating a pathway for medical research that has long been obstructed by the war on drugs.
"This bill we are introducing seeks to right decades of wrong and end unnecessary marijuana laws," Booker said. "Our federal government has long overstepped the boundaries of common sense, fiscal prudence and compassion with its marijuana laws. These laws must change."
Despite the shifts in many states, the measure could still prove a tough sell in Congress, which has been slow to embrace state legalization laws. The federal budget bill approved late last year, for example, sought to block Washington, D.C., from going forward with a voter-approved measure legalizing recreational pot. City leaders have ignored the directive and moved forward with legalization.
Opponents of legalization warned that the new proposal goes too far.
"This bill is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut," said Kevin Sabet, president of the advocacy group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
"Yes, we should work with scientists to incentivize research to help groups like cancer patients, but we should not open the floodgates to Big Marijuana so that businesses can sell pot for profit to people with a headache," he said.
The senators pushing the measure vowed they would aggressively lobby their colleagues.
"It is outrageous that any parent should be worried about social services knocking on their door because they are giving their children the medicine the doctor says they need," Gillibrand said, while standing alongside families who rely on marijuana to treat debilitating child illnesses.
"I dare any senator to meet these patients here and say they don't deserve the medicine their doctors prescribed."