Former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin is officially on board with having the department research medical marijuana—a development that comes a year after he was in a position to actually make that happen.
In an interview with Task & Purpose that was published on Thursday, Shulkin said that “the time is now” for VA to facilitate studies into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans.
“I believe that the VA should be involved in research on anything that could potentially help veterans and improve their health and well-being,” he said.
That appears to represent a notable departure from the position he held while he headed the department.
For example, VA under his leadership refused to provide assistance to an Arizona-based research facility that was soliciting veterans to participate in a federally approved clinical trial looking at the potential benefits of cannabis in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects,” a VA official told Air Force Times in 2017. “The researcher is free to work with veterans service organizations and state veterans officials who may not face such restrictions to identify candidates for her study.”
But according to the Brookings Institute, that’s not an accurate assessment because “doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements.”
While the former secretary still said during this latest interview that congressional action is necessary to prompt VA research efforts, he seems to have become decidedly more vocal about the importance of such studies as compared to his time in office.
“In particular, with the VA’s focus on suicide as the top priority, people just don’t take their lives because of no reason,” he said. “They take their lives, often because of issues related to chronic pain, depression, substance abuse, and there is growing evidence that medical marijuana—I’m not talking about recreational marijuana—but properly prescribed, may have some real benefits in anxiety improvement, in pain management, and potentially, in the issue of substance abuse.”
“And therefore, I believe it’s extremely appropriate for VA to be researching and developing therapies that can help veterans, particularly in areas where we don’t have enough good therapies or answers,” he said.
Task & Purpose followed up to ask about potential obstacles such to having VA conduct research into the issue, and Shulkin said that because marijuana is a federally controlled substance, “the challenge of doing research with the regulations, and the hoops that you have to go through, are making it too difficult to do for many of the researchers.”
“I do think that the way forward is a legislative solution, much of what VA responds to are changes in the law, where medical research for veterans in this area could be streamlined and clarity around what regulations and rules need to be followed to be able to do this research, as well as guidance about the type of research that can and should be done, which reports back to Congress.”
He added that he doesn’t anticipate that President Trump would resist legislation empowering VA to study marijuana for veterans.
Brad Burge, director of strategic communication at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the group behind the study into cannabis for PTSD, told Marijuana Moment that they are “pleased that Shulkin has now expressed his support for medical marijuana research, even though that support would have been much more valuable when he was still in office.”
“Nevertheless we are looking forward to the VA’s support of marijuana research and see Shulkin’s change of stance as a promising sign for veterans suffering from PTSD,” Burge said.
It wasn’t just that Shulkin’s VA put up roadblocks to cannabis research, he also resisted providing veterans with access to marijuana by declining to change internal VA policy that could empower its doctors to issue recommendations in states where it’s legal.
The reasoning, he said in 2017, is that it’s “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal” because of federal law. But advocates argued that the only thing standing in the way of VA cannabis research is VA policy itself, which Shulkin could have amended.
Getting a VA cannabis reform bill passed as the former official is now recommending has already proved difficult this year, with current VA officials voicing opposition during a congressional committee hearing in June to modest proposals such as allowing their doctors to recommend cannabis or even surveying veterans about their marijuana use.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said that same month that he pulled an appropriations amendment to allow for VA marijuana recommendations from floor consideration partly because of opposition from the department.
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.