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.