In the latest sign that congressional Democrats are using their new majority to prioritize marijuana law reform issues that languished under prior Republican leadership, a House subcommittee has scheduled a hearing on Tuesday to discuss three cannabis bills focusing on military veterans.
The legislation up for consideration concerns veterans’ access to medical marijuana, expanding research on cannabis’s therapeutic value and protecting U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits for those using the drug in compliance with state law.
It will be the second marijuana-related hearing of the 116th Congress, following a separate House committee’s approval of a bill to protect banks that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health will take testimony on the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, the Veterans Equal Access Act and the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act.
Lawmakers sponsoring the bills will appear before the panel, which is expected to advance the bills to the full committee for a vote soon after. Here’s what the legislation would accomplish:
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) filed the marijuana research bill in January and pledged that it would be the “first veterans cannabis bill to pass the House.” It would require the VA to conduct clinical trials on the potential benefits of marijuana for veterans suffering from a range of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
Last year, an earlier version of the legislation was the first standalone marijuana reform bill ever to be approved by a congressional panel. Now the same committee will get a chance to advance the new version, which goes beyond last Congress’s bill by requiring, instead of simply encouraging, the VA to study medical cannabis.
“I am grateful to once again go before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to advocate for countless veterans in need of non-opioid pain management options,” Correa told Marijuana Moment. “Last Congress, my bipartisan VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act was successfully passed out of committee and I am eager to do so again. All across the United States veterans want access to cannabis. It’s Congress’s job to get to work and give them the access they need.”
The Veterans Equal Access Act, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), would allow VA doctors to issue recommendations for medical marijuana to veterans living in a state where it’s legal.
“For too long, the VA has tied the hands of its doctors in providing appropriate care for their patients—our veterans. The Veterans Equal Access Act makes sure that our veterans get the treatment they need, and this hearing in an important step in the passage of this bill,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment. “Now, with the most pro-cannabis congress in history, we are updating our outdated federal cannabis laws. I’m looking forward to building on this momentum and seeing our continued progress.”
Both the House and Senate in years past have approved appropriations amendments aimed at allowing VA physicians to recommend medical cannabis, but they have never been enacted into law.
Earlier this month, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act. It would codify into federal law an existing VA administrative policy that protects veterans from losing their benefits due to cannabis use in legal states. It would also change VA rules so that doctors would be able to fill out forms allowing veterans to obtain medical marijuana, similar to the Blumenauer bill.
Tuesday’s hearing is another sign that House Democrats are prioritizing cannabis reform this Congress, and that they’re approaching the issue methodologically. It’s also in line with what Blumenauer outlined in a “blueprint” to end federal marijuana prohibition, with various committees taking up standalone cannabis bills in an incremental fashion leading up to eventual broader reform.
“The significance of House Leadership giving cannabis its day in Congress cannot be overstated,” NORML political director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “The momentum is cresting and never before have we been closer to ending the failed policy of prohibition and criminalization.”
Witnesses at the hearing will include representatives of the VA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, while prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana is set to provide a written statement for the record.
The banking bill that passed in the House Financial Services Committee last month is pending placement on the calendar for a full floor vote. The veterans-focused legislation is expected to follow a similar course: the subcommittee hearing next week followed by a full committee vote that would send the bills on their way for the full chamber for consideration.
This story was updated to include comment from Correa and Blumenauer, as well as information about hearing witnesses.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Top Trump Campaign Spokesman: Marijuana Must Be ‘Kept Illegal’
Asked in a new interview about President Trump’s position on changing federal marijuana laws, a top reelection campaign aide said the administration’s policy is that cannabis and other currently illegal drugs should remain illegal.
“I think what the president is looking at is looking at this from a standpoint of a parent of a young person to make sure that we keep our kids away from drugs,” Marc Lotter, director of strategic communications for the Trump 2020 effort, said in an interview with Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS-TV.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.
Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Gets Closer To Governor’s Desk With New Amendments
One week after bills to decriminalize marijuana in Virginia were passed by both the House and Senate, they advanced again on Wednesday in committee votes, where they were revised in an effort to ease the path to the governor’s desk.
The goal was to make the language of the bills identical, with lawmakers hoping to streamline the process by avoiding sending differing pieces of decriminalization legislation to a bicameral conference committee to resolve differences.
The House of Delegates and Senate were under pressure to approve their respective versions of decriminalization ahead of a crossover deadline last week. After clearing floor votes in their respective chambers, the Senate-passed bill was sent to the House Court of Justice Committee, while the House’s legislation was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those panels amended the bills and advanced them on Wednesday, with senators voting 10-4 to advance the revised legislation and delegates voting 8-5. However, the Senate panel also struck a part of the text of a compromise substitute version concerning a record clearing provision while the House committee accepted the substitute as offered.
That means it will be up to the Finance Committees to resolve the remaining differences if lawmakers hope to skip the conference step prior to full floor votes in both chambers.
Regardless of the unexpected complication, advocates said the new committee actions represent a positive development.
“Fortunately, the patrons were able to reach a consensus and move the bills forward,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Virginians have waited long enough for this important step, one that will dramatically reduce both marijuana arrests and the collateral consequences that follow such charges.”
The legislation as amended would make possession of up to one ounce a civil penalty punishable by a $25 fine without the threat of jail time. Currently, simple possession is punishable by a maximum $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
A provision that would have allowed courts to sentence individuals to up to five hours of community service in lieu of the civil penalty was removed with the latest revisions. The bill also stipulates that juveniles found in possession of cannabis will be treated as delinquent, rather than go through a less punitive process for a “child in need of service.”
Language providing a means to seal prior records for marijuana convictions was successfully reinserted into the House Courts of Justice Committee-passed bill after it was previously removed and placed in a separate expungement bill. That latter legislation is stalled, so lawmakers put it back into the decriminalization measure via the substitute to ensure its enactment.
The Senate Judiciary moved to delete that section, however, creating complications for avoiding a conference committee.
Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee voted in favor of a separate Senate-passed resolution on Wednesday that calls for the establishment of a joint commission to “study and make recommendations for how Virginia should go about legalizing and regulating the growth, sale, and possession of marijuana by July 1, 2022, and address the impacts of marijuana prohibition.” That vote was 12-5.
That’s a significant step, as the legislature is generally reluctant to enact bold reform without first conducting a study on the issue.
While Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is in favor of decriminalization, including a call for the policy change in his State of the Commonwealth address last month, he’s yet to embrace adult-use legalization. That said, Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is running to replace the term-limited governor in 2021, said he’s optimistic that Northam will come around on the issue.
Herring organized a cannabis summit late last year to hear from officials representing states that have already legalized marijuana. That’s one tool he said the governor could use as he considers broader reform.
Also on Wednesday, the House Courts of Justice Criminal Subcommittee advanced another Senate-passed bill to formally legalize possession of CBD and THC-A medial cannabis preparations that are recommended by a doctor, an expansion of the current policy simply offers patients arrested with it an affirmative defense in court.
For now, Virginia seems to be on the path to become the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana, and the first to do so in 2020. Last year, three states—New Mexico, Hawaii and North Dakota—also approved the policy change.
Alabama Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill
An Alabama Senate committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would legalize medical marijuana in the state.
The legislation would allow patients with qualifying conditions to purchase cannabis products from licensed dispensaries. It would be a limited system, however, prohibiting patients from smoking or vaping marijuana.
The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the bill in a 8-1 vote, with one abstention. The next stop for the legislation will be the Senate floor.
The proposal would establish the Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission, which would be responsible for overseeing a patient registry database, issuing medical cannabis cards and approving licenses for marijuana dispensaries, cultivators, transporters and testing facilities.
This vote comes two months after a panel created by the legislature, the Medical Cannabis Study Commission, issued a recommendation that Alabama implement a medical cannabis program.
The full Senate approved a medical cannabis legalization bill last year, but it was diluted in the House to only provide for the establishment of the study commission. Sen. Tim Melson (R) sponsored both versions of the legislation and served as chairman of the review panel.
The current bill has been revised from the earlier version. For example, this one does not require patients to exhaust traditional treatment options before they can access medical cannabis.
The committee also approved a series of amendments by voice vote, including several technical changes to the bill. Another one would shield physicians from liability for recommending medical cannabis. One would clarify that employees are ineligible for workers’ compensation for accidents caused by being intoxicated by medical cannabis, which is the same standard as other drugs.
Watch the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee debate and vote on medical cannabis below:
Members also agreed to an amendment creating a restriction on who can be on the cannabis commission.
While it’s not clear how the House would approach the bill if it advances to the chamber this year, the speaker said this week that he’s “in a wait and see mode” and commended Melson for his work on the measure. The state’s attorney general, meanwhile, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing opposition to the reform move.
Under the measure, patients suffering from 15 conditions would qualify for the program. Those include anxiety, cancer, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder. Patients would be able to purchase up to a 70-day supply at a time, and there would be a cap of 32 dispensaries allowed in the state.
Prior to the vote, committee heard from a series of proponents and opponents, including parents who shared anecdotes about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis for their children. Interest in the reform move was so strong that an overflow crowd has to be moved to a separate hearing room.
“Sometimes people are not able to empathize with others who have gone through something. I guarantee you if one of relatives, members of the legislature, went through something like the testimonies that we’ve heard today, they would want it,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D) said. “But they would probably have the means to fly somewhere and get it.”
One thing we're watching on Goat Hill today is the medical marijuana bill. Alabama is one of only 17 states where medical cannabis remains illegal. https://t.co/V8CK8nm6mm
— Alabama Democrats (@aldemocrats) February 19, 2020
There would be a number of restrictions under the bill when it comes to advertising. It would also require seed-to-sale tracking for marijuana products, set packaging and labeling requirements and impose criminal background checks for licensed facility employees.
A nine percent tax would be levied on “gross proceeds of the sales of medical cannabis” sold at a retail medical cannabis dispensary. Part of those funds would go toward creating a new Consortium for Medical Cannabis Research, which would provide grants to study the plant.
Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee also approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.