A pair of bipartisan House members have filed a bill to direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to carry out studies into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for military veterans with certain conditions.
Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) introduced the legislation on Tuesday, about a week after Sens. Jon Tester (D) and Dan Sullivan (R) filed a companion version in their chamber.
That Senate measure is scheduled to be taken up in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which Tester chairs, on Thursday.
Under the proposal, VA would be tasked with conducting studies that explore the effects of cannabis for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.
“With the opioid crisis raging across America, it is imperative to the health and safety of our veterans that we find alternative treatments for chronic pain and service-related injuries,” Correa, who has consistently carried earlier iterations of the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, said in a press release.
I've met thousands of veterans in Orange County who depend on cannabis to manage their pain. It's past time the VA study and recognize the role cannabis can play in veterans' healthcare.
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) February 14, 2023
“It’s past time the VA did a formal study and began recognizing that cannabis can play a role in our veterans’ healthcare,” the congressman said. “I am honored to have Congressman Bergman, Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, and Senator Dan Sullivan join me in taking action to help veterans in need of medical cannabis and opioid alternatives.”
Bergman said that he’s “proud to help introduce this bipartisan legislation to facilitate VA research for medicinal cannabis.”
“This will allow us to explore treatments for chronic pain and other ailments that our Veterans face without the need for opiates,” he said. “It will also ensure the medical safety of our Veterans, providing secure pathways to pain alleviation instead of driving many to self-mediate where marijuana has been legalized.”
The bill has been revised in this latest version to give VA latitude in determining for itself whether it’s capable of overseeing clinical trials into marijuana for chronic pain and PTSD.
The significant change appears to be responsive to concerns expressed by VA officials who testified against the earlier proposals.
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A previous version of the legislation cleared a House committee in 2021, despite the protests of VA officials. Earlier iterations of the measure also moved through committee in 2020 and 2018 as well, but none were enacted into law.
The legislation has been revised this Congress to include a requirement for a retroactive observation study to look into the experiences of veterans who’ve used marijuana for such treatment in the past outside of the clinical trail context.
But there’s another change that observers have picked up on as potentially giving VA the ability to avoid fulfilling a key objective on clinical trials.
Within 90 days of completion of an observational study on the effects of cannabis on PTSD and chronic pain, VA would be required to submit a report to Congress on whether it’s capable of carrying out the more robust clinical trials that were at the center of earlier forms of the legislation.
“The Secretary may terminate the clinical trials…if the Secretary determines that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to meet clinical guideline requirements necessary to conduct such trials or the clinical trials would create excessive risk to participant,” the bill text says.
The reason that’s important, in part, is because VA has repeatedly come out against past versions of the reform proposal, with the department suggesting that the research mandate goes too far with too many requirements. Under the new language, VA could finish the qualitative observational study and then independently decide against carrying out the clinical trial portion involving human subjects.
Other revisions in the new version include removing language that required studies to involve at least seven cannabis varieties and instead leaving that open-ended. That may help further address some of VA’s prior concerns about the measure being unduly prescriptive.
Correa had a conversation with VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans last year, and so there were some heightened expectations that the department might reverse course on the legislation—but that hasn’t happened to date.
A coalition of more than 20 veterans service organizations (VSOs) sent a letter to congressional leaders late last year to urge the passage of a marijuana and veterans research bill before the end of the last Congress. But that did not pan out.
Pat Murray, director of national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), said that “members tell us that medicinal cannabis has helped them cope with chronic pain and other service-connected health conditions.”
“They cannot receive these services at VA because of VA’s bureaucratic hurdles. VA uses evidence-based clinical guidelines to manage other pharmacological treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and substance use disorder because medical trials have found them effective,” Murray said. “VA must expand research on the efficacy of non-traditional medical therapies, such as medicinal cannabis and other holistic approaches.”
Also, a large-scale defense spending bill that was enacted at the end of the last session excluded separate language from a previously House-passed version that would have authorized VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans living in legal states.
Advocates and stakeholders have been watching carefully for any marijuana policy moves from Capitol Hill, especially given the shift in political dynamics with Republicans taking the majority in the House while Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and several other key Democratic senators met at the beginning of the month to discuss marijuana legislation, presumably including the much-anticipated package of cannabis banking and expungements measures known as SAFE Plus.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who was part of that meeting, said in a recent interview that ongoing marijuana banking issues under prohibition amount to a “cannabis crisis,” and while he thinks there’s still a shot to enact reform, he’s emphasized the challenges of the new political reality on Capitol Hill.
The White House was asked last month where President Joe Biden stands on marijuana banking reform, and Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the ball is in Congress’s court, with no current plans for administrative action to resolve the issue.
Also last month, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) filed legislation that’s meant to protect military veterans from losing government benefits for using medical marijuana in compliance with state law. The bill would further codify that VA doctors are allowed to discuss the potential risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
The congressman separately refiled legislation to move marijuana from Schedule I to the less restrictive Schedule III under federal law.
Biden has voiced support for both rescheduling and marijuana research. He also signed a marijuana research bill into law in December, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.
Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) and two other GOP cosponsors filed the first piece of cannabis legislation for the 118th Congress. It’s designed to allow medical cannabis patients to purchase and possess firearms.
Read the text of the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.