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.
Idaho Senator Files Bill To Decriminalize Drug Possession
A new bill filed by an Idaho senator would decriminalize possession of currently illegal drugs in the state, though it also contains a provision that advocates consider troubling, allowing the government to involuntarily commit people convicted of certain offenses to treatment.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D) introduced the legislation, which would remove criminal penalties for drug use and possession by “requiring intention to deliver for criminal trafficking.”
Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment the bill has been referred to the Judiciary and Rules Committee, where Chairman Todd Lakey (R) has agreed to hold a hearing on it.
“We have too much of a focus on prosecution and punishment and not enough on treatment,” Burgoyne said in a separate interview with KTVB. “We don’t have a functioning mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment capability for the needs of our people. We need new strategies, how we draw the lines between what is criminal conduct and what is not criminal conduct when it comes to drug possession and usage.”
The bill sets different possession thresholds for different drugs. Having just two grams of heroin could be considered trafficking, while for cocaine and methamphetamine, the amount is set at 28 grams. One pound of marijuana, or 25 plants, could be treated as a trafficking offense.
Any amount of LSD could be considered a trafficking offense, as could any amount of a “simulated controlled substance,” possibly referring to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Using drugs with friends would also be harshly penalized, as “sharing or providing a controlled substance for use by another person shall constitute intent to deliver.”
“This will reduce arrests, but how much is very hard to predict,” Burgoyne told Marijuana Moment. “Unfortunately, illegal drug use, even in private, is too often accompanied by the commission of other crimes, which my bill does not excuse and which could lead to arrest.”
Burgoyne’s bill would also allow people using drugs to be “placed in protective custody” or “admitted for community-assisted behavioral health treatment.” This would apply to people under the influence and in various circumstances, such as being pregnant, posing a risk to themselves or others or in withdrawal.
But existing research on mandatory drug treatment suggests it is not helpful for people with substance use disorder. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that when people are ordered to undergo drug treatment without their informed consent, the practice does more harm than good and does not reduce their drug use. The researchers explained that harm reduction efforts like syringe exchanges and drug education were more effective.
“Although there is some theoretical danger of adverse consequences to mandated drug treatment, we already mandate it for prisoners with drug issues,” Burgoyne said. “I’d like to shift treatment out of our jails and prisons to a more appropriate place. Furthermore, a civil commitment is not an easy thing to obtain, and I think our courts will be conservative in how they handle them.”
If the senator’s legislation passes, it remains to be seen what effect it would have on drug arrest rates in Idaho. According to the FBI, in 2017 Idaho had 8,432 arrests for “drug abuse violations,” which is a little over 16 percent of all arrests that year.
Burgoyne’s reform proposal comes amid a growing national debate about the value of decriminalizing drug use over more arrests. Last year in May, Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms. Oakland’s City Council followed the next month by decriminalizing a wide range of psychedelics.
Advocates are also raising the issue on the national stage. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) proposed decriminalizing drug consumption in November. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed decriminalizing drug possession and reducing sentences. His primary opponent, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), recently called for legalizing and regulating drugs in order to treat substance misuse as a public health issue.
Photo coutersy of Markus Spiske.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Pushes For Marijuana Legalization In Annual Speech
The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) repeated his call for marijuana legalization in his annual State of the Territory address.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D), who called the legislature into a special session last month to begin taking up cannabis reform legislation, stressed that establishing a commercial marijuana market would bring in needed tax revenue to support a variety of government programs.
The proposed amendment to the territory’s existing medical cannabis law, which Bryan signed last year, would allow adults 21 and older to obtain a license from the government in order to purchase and cultivate marijuana. It would also promote participation in the industry by small farmers and local businesses, as well as providing for automatic expungements of prior cannabis convictions.
“Most importantly, it creates a taxing regime for the local industry that will generate higher revenues than the current law allows,” he said in the speech last Monday, noting that tax revenue will be distributed between the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) fund (75 percent), implementation of regulations (20 percent) and services for senior citizens (5 percent).
“The revenues generated from this industry can benefit the system as a direct contribution,” the governor said. “However, the goal is to create a funding stream that is reliable enough to ultimately support a revenue bond that can provide a needed cash infusion to the system.”
Watch Bryan’s marijuana comments, first reported by Vibe High, about 36:24 into the video below:
“This is by no means the panacea or final solution for the GERS crisis, but a small part of a larger solution,” he continued. “It begins the process of generating the new revenues required to stave off the insolvency of the System. It takes existing policy, approved by this body, and leverages it to support this critical area of need.”
“We must acknowledge the opportunities that regulated expansion of this industry can bring to the territory and the potential benefits to the GERS,” he said. “I urge this body to take the necessary action to approve the amending legislation we have proposed.”
Bryan’s proposal calls for a 30 percent tax on marijuana sales, with revenue expected to be upwards of $20 million annually. His administration is also expecting the policy change to stimulate tourism, and visitors interested in participating in the market would be charged a $10 per day fee to access legal cannabis.
This year has seen several governors voice support for marijuana reform during their high-profile annual addresses and in legislative agendas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reaffirmed his commitment to legalization in his State of the State speech and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) pledged to pursue decriminalization, for example.
In New Mexico, the governor included legalization in her 2020 agenda, and lawmakers followed suit by filing a cannabis reform bill on Thursday. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) proposed legalizing marijuana through a state-run model in a budget proposal released on Thursday.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Tulsi Gabbard Endorses Legalizing Drugs
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is calling for the U.S. to legalize currently illicit drugs.
“If we take that step to legalize and regulate, then we’re no longer treating people who are struggling with substance addiction and abuse as criminals and instead getting them the help that they need,” the 2020 presidential candidate said at a campaign stop in Merrimack, New Hampshire on Friday.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo element courtesy of Lorie Shaull.