Senators to Vote On Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans

By Tom Angell | July 11, 2017

A powerful Congressional panel is expected to vote this week on a proposal to allow military veterans to obtain medical marijuana recommendations through government doctors.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee will consider an amendment on Thursday to let physicians in the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) recommend medical cannabis in states where it is legal.

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 such time as the department institutes a new one replacing it.

The proposal expected to be considered by senators — an amendment to the budget bill that funds V.A. — would prevent the department from spending any money to enforce the internal prohibition on doctor-recommended cannabis in legal states.

According the the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, the bipartisan amendment will be sponsored by Sens. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).

The pair sponsored a similar measure last year which was approved by the Appropriations Committee by a vote of 20 to 10.

While the full House of Representatives later added a similar amendment to its version of the V.A. funding legislation by a vote of 233 to 189, the provisions were stripped out by the conference committee that merged both chambers’ separate legislation into a final V.A. appropriations bill.

Many military veterans use marijuana to treat physical pain resulting from war wounds or to manage the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The American Legion, which represents more than 2 million veterans, endorsed rescheduling marijuana in a resolution adopted at its conference last year, and has pressured the Trump administration to support a change in cannabis’s status under federal law.

Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin has suggested on a number of occasions that cannabis seems to hold promise but that current federal law prevents his department from studying its benefits or increasing veterans’ access to it.

Last month, he said that state-level legalization is leading to more research on marijuana’s potential benefits that wouldn’t otherwise occur in light of federal roadblocks.

In a letter to Congressman J. Luis Correa (D-CA) released on Tuesday, Shulkin indicated that a new V.A. policy on marijuana is “under internal review and coordination prior to general distribution.” But he said that the forthcoming”updated” directive would “maintain the same policy” as the prior one that expired last year.

A subcommittee of the Senate panel will first take up the legislation on Wednesday, though a cannabis amendment is not expected to be considered until the next day when the full committee considers the bill.

The House Appropriations Committee approved its version of Fiscal Year 2018 V.A. spending legislation last month. Advocates did not push for any marijuana amendments at the time because it is believed that the chances of passage in that chamber are better on the floor.

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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