American Legion To Feds: Increase Veterans’ Medical Marijuana Access

By Tom Angell | August 24, 2017

One day after President Trump addressed its national convention, the largest military veterans organization in the country is calling on his administration to allow government doctors to recommend medical marijuana through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.).

“More than half the states in the union have passed medical marijuana laws to date,” reads a resolution adopted Thursday by the American Legion, which has more more than 2.4 million members. “The American Legion urge the United States government to permit VA medical providers to be able to discuss with veterans the use of marijuana for medical purposes and recommend it in those states where medical marijuana laws exist.”

Under a current internal V.A. administrative directive, federal policy is “to prohibit V.A. providers from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a Veteran’s participation in a State marijuana program.” That policy technically expired on January 31, 2016, but it remains in effect in practice until the department institutes a new one replacing it.

Last month, Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin announced that a new directive is in the final stages of internal review. While it is not known what exactly it will say, he wrote in a letter to a member of Congress that it would “maintain the same policy” as the prior one.

Shulkin has on several occasions indicated that he sees marijuana’s medical potential but feels constrained by current federal laws.

During a briefing at the White House in May, Shulkin said that state medical cannabis laws may be generating “some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful, and we’re interested in looking at that and learning from that.” But “until time the federal law changes,” he added, “we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”

In an appearance in June, he said, “From the federal government point of view, right now we are prohibited by law from doing research on it or prescribing it… We are not going to be out there doing that research or prescribing these different medicinal preparations unless the law is changed.”

In a separate June interview, he said that it is “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal,” adding, “if a law change at the federal level is appropriate, that could happen.”

It’s true, as Shulkin says, that federal law prevents doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs from prescribing medical cannabis. But no doctor in the country — V.A. or not — can do so, since prescription if a federally-regulated process. In the 29 states with comprehensive medical cannabis laws, physicians instead recommend it to patients.

Federal law doesn’t actually block V.A. doctors from filling out paperwork for veterans who wish to participate in those state programs; the only thing standing in the way is the department’s own internal policy, which the V.A. secretary can change.

Shulkin, who previously served as V.A.’s undersecretary of health in the Obama administration, wrote in a letter last year that he “wholeheartedly agree[s] that VA should do all it can to foster open communication between Veterans and their VA providers, including discussion about participation in state marijuana programs… I recognize that the disparity between Federal and state laws regarding the use of marijuana creates considerable uncertainty for patients, providers, and Federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel.”

While many veterans use medical cannabis to treat physical pain or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with their war wounds, they are currently forced to seek recommendations from outside doctors instead of from the V.A. physicians who know their medical histories. That process can be expensive, time-consuming and confusing for veterans.

The new American Legion resolution, adopted at the organization’s national convention in Reno, builds off a similar measure it approved last year calling on the federal government to reschedule cannabis.

“The American Legion urge Congress to amend legislation to remove Marijuana from schedule I and reclassify it in a category that, at a minimum, will recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value,” the earlier measure reads.

Earlier this year, top American Legion officials published an op-ed laying out the group’s case for reform.

“The opioid epidemic that continues to grip veterans is yet another reason to ease the federal government’s outdated attitude toward America’s marijuana supply. The Trump administration should lead a new effort to combat opioid abuse, and it should include the elimination of barriers to medical research on cannabis,” they wrote. “The result, potentially, could provide a non-addictive solution to the most common debilitating conditions our veterans — and others in society — face… Cannabis’ Schedule I listing is disingenuous given the fact that the federal government cannot produce any research or evidence justifying its classification – which significantly hampers medical research into the therapeutic aspects of the drug. It’s a classic Catch-22.”

The new resolution was approved by the American Legion’s Ohio department last month, and sailed through the national convention with little debate and only minor text changes in committee.

Also at the convention, attendees saw a presentation from Dr. Sue Sisley, who is conducting a large-scale trial on medical cannabis’s role in easing PTSD symptoms.

Sisley also accompanied veterans attending the convention on a tour of one of Nevada’s legal marijuana growing sites.

“This is a crucial next step for the American Legion after the first cannabis resolution passed last year. Enabling V.A. physicians to write medical cannabis recommendations for appropriate veteran patients is essential,” Sisley told MassRoots in an interview from the convention in Reno. “Veterans deserve safe access to lab tested cannabis in legal states.”

The powerful veterans group’s new call for increased medical cannabis access comes as Congress is considering the V.A.’s annual budget, through which some lawmakers are pushing the department to allow its physicians to issue medical marijuana recommendations.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 24 to 7 to approve an amendment to prevent the V.A. from spending money to enforce its existing ban preventing government doctors from filling out forms for veterans to qualify for state medical cannabis laws.

But while the full House of Representative voted 233 to 189 for a similar measure last year, Congressional leadership blocked a vote on the amendment in that chamber last month.

However, the veterans access issue isn’t necessarily dead for the year, even if Shulkin doesn’t make changes administratively through a new policy.

Advocates hope that because the provision preventing V.A. from enforcing the existing ban was inserted into the Senate’s version of the department’s funding legislation with such a strong bipartisan vote, the conference committee that later merges the two chambers’ bills together into a single proposal will adopt the language.

But a conference committee stripped the veterans cannabis provision out of last year’s bill even though it had been approved by strong bipartisan majorities in both chambers. This year, there won’t even be a House vote on the measure.

But the American Legion’s expanded position, given that it represents so many veterans and garners respect from federal officials — both Shulkin and Trump spoke at the convention this week — should provide a boost to efforts to convince Congressional leadership to allow the recommendation provision to become law this year.

“Year after year, we’ve never been able to pass the ‘veterans equal access amendment’ at the federal level,” Sisley said. “But with the full weight of the American Legion behind this next round of legislation, I know we can finally get this approved! I’m optimistic this will be a game-changer.”

Current funding for the federal government runs out on September 30, so decisions on provisions for Fiscal Year 2018 funding will likely be made soon, though there is a chance Congress will simply enact a short-term extension of current funding levels and policy riders to give itself more time to finalize legislation covering next year.

Congress could vote on several marijuana amendments next month, including proposals to allow cannabis businesses to access banks and to protect state laws from federal interference.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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