Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) withdrew an amendment on Friday that would have allowed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where it’s legal.
The congressman, whose separate measure blocking the Justice Department from intervening in state-legal cannabis activities passed on the House floor on Thursday, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that VA “blindsided” lawmakers by arguing for the first time that their physicians “would have been professionally liable” if they issued medical cannabis recommendations.
“This is a new wrinkle from the VA,” he said. “If we’d known, I’m absolutely convinced we could have” passed the measure.
— House Press Gallery (@HouseDailyPress) June 21, 2019
“I have been working in this Congress to extend [medical cannabis access] to our veterans who, if anything, need medical marijuana more than any other category of our citizens,” Blumenauer said in a speech on the House floor just before pulling the amendment. “We lost 7,000 people to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we’ve lost 100,000 of those veterans to suicides and opioid overdoses. The VA, I’m afraid, has not been as helpful as it should be.”
He cited high rates of opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths among veterans as one reason he’s “repeatedly advanced this amendment.”
In 2016, versions of the measure cleared both the House and Senate but the language “stripped out by the Republican leadership,” he said.
“An illustration of how far we have evolved: the House leadership that stripped this provision out was headed by [Speaker John Boehner], who is now a spokesperson for the cannabis industry, having described that he’s evolved on this issue and thinks it’s a good idea,” Blumenauer said. “We haven’t evolved in this Congress in providing protections for the VA.”
This time around, VA itself stood against the measure.
“Even though this amendment has passed repeatedly, all of a sudden the VA has decided, well, they would be putting their doctors at risk,” he said. “Never came up before. If we’d known about it, we could work it around. I think we can and should work to fix this.”
The specific concern, apparently, is that VA doctors could potentially be prosecuted for aiding and abetting violations of the Controlled Substances Act by filling out forms on federal property to help veterans obtain cannabis, which is still a Schedule I drug. Blumenauer had filed a separate amendment on the issue blocking the Justice Department from punishing VA physicians for that activity, but also withdrew that measure earlier in the week prior to Rules Committee consideration because it would have been ruled not in order.
There are “limitations in terms of the Rules Committee pushing things that are actually stretching what we can do under the rules” of the House, Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment in an earlier interview.
The congressman also cited “some procedural roadblocks, among others, thrown up by some members of the Appropriations Committee.”
“We worked very hard to see if we could resolve them in the time that we had, but unfortunately we couldn’t,” he said.
Advocates have pointed out that federal courts have already determined that doctors who simply recommend medical cannabis to their patients are protected under the First Amendment, but VA’s concerns caused uncertainty among lawmakers as to whether that protection extends to federally employed physicians. And those questions could have jeopardized the amendment’s passage on the floor.
“After the momentum of this week between House hearings on cannabis small business access to capital, a [House Veterans’ Affairs Committee] hearing on medical cannabis research, and a historic victory in the House with the Blumenauer CJS amendment, it is incredibly frustrating to see the Congressman withdraw an amendment that would provide medical cannabis access to veterans,” David Mangone, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access, told Marijuana Moment.
“The VA’s last minute sabotage of this amendment creates an unforeseen hurdle that could have easily been avoided,” he said. “Instead of coming up with watered-down excuses, the VA should be working with Congress to create a functioning framework to get medical cannabis to our veterans.”
It’s not just Blumenauer’s measure that VA is resisting. A department representative testified in opposition to four pieces of legislation focused on cannabis and veterans that were discussed during a congressional committee hearing on Thursday, including Blumenauer’s standalone bill to accomplish the same objective as his appropriations amendment.
The official told the panel that VA is also against legislation that would require the the department to conduct clinical trials on the therapeutic benefits of marijuana for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, a bill that to mandate a survey of veterans on their cannabis use and a proposal to require training on medical cannabis for VA health practitioners.
All that said, it’s possible that if the congressman would have moved ahead with his amendment and VA effectively made its case to defeat the measure, that could have jeopardized his related bill, which would permanently codify the policy as opposed to being attached to an annual funding bill that needs to be renewed as is the case with the amendment. Considering how the standalone legislation received a hearing this week and seems positioned to advance further, a failed vote on the amendment could have risked politically damaging the bill’s prospects.
Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment that the department’s opposition to cannabis reform shows that it “has its head in the sand” and that “they’re in denial.”
“They aren’t serving the needs of veterans,” he said.
“I hope that we’ll be able to work together to fix this little quirk to make sure that VA doctors can do what doctors everywhere do in states where medical cannabis is legal and be able to work with their patients,” he concluded on the floor. “The VA ought to give their patients, our veterans, the same consideration to be able to have them be able to have these conversations with the doctors that know them best.”
Photo courtesy of the House of Representatives.