A key House committee on Monday rejected bipartisan spending bill amendments to promote veterans’ medical marijuana access on procedural grounds, while another pair of measures to provide protections for people who use cannabis in federally assisted public housing was pulled before the panel had a chance to vote.
Advocates had hoped that the House Rules Committee would make in order each of the amendments and clear them for floor consideration. But those hopes were dashed in short order on Monday amid disagreements about the appropriateness of pursuing the policy reform measures through spending legislation.
The panel also refused to allow a measure that includes provisions to make it easier to study Schedule I substances like marijuana and many psychedelics to move to the floor vote a vote.
Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) attempted to defend the germaneness of his veterans amendments, which he’d revised ahead of the Rules meeting after consulting with the House Parliamentarian to avoid exactly this kind of issue. The latest version of the measure would have prevented the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from using its funds to enforce specific policies that block VA doctors from recommending medical cannabis to veterans, as well as a separate directive barring VA from paying for marijuana as a covered health treatment.
In other words, it wouldn’t force VA to spend money in a certain way, or even require it to revise its rules. Instead, it would have imposed a restriction on spending appropriated dollars to enforce select cannabis policies prescribed under a 2017 directive.
Meanwhile, the specific issue of allowing VA doctors to make medical marijuana recommendations was addressed in an amendment to a separate, must-pass defense bill that passed the House last week.
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For the appropriations legislation, the original measure Joyce and bipartisan cosponsors filed ahead of the most recent revision would have additionally blocked the department from using its funding to prohibit veterans from using cannabis in compliance with state and tribal law.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees VA spending, acknowledged on Monday that she asked Joyce not to pursue the amendment at the committee level. She reasoned that such a proposal needs to be handled through authorizing, rather than appropriations, legislation.
The congresswoman also argued that a policy permitting VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis could put them at risk of facing federal enforcement action—a point seemingly contradicted by a 2000 federal court ruling that determined physicians have a First Amendment right to make recommendations for medical marijuana, even if they’re not able to “prescribe” it.
In any case, Joyce said that he disagreed with the chair’s procedural assessment.
“This amendment, which would simply bar federal funds from enforcing parts of [Veterans Health Administration] Directive 1315, is fairly straightforward,” he told members of the Rules Committee. “It’s commonsense and germane to the appropriations process.”
“To be clear, this amendment does not enact or authorize new policy. It doesn’t even call on the agency to develop a new rule or directive,” he said, adding that there’s precedent for advancing similar marijuana reform policies through spending legislation, such as a rider that’s been annually renewed since 2014 that blocks the Justice Department from using its dollars to interference in state-legal medical cannabis programs.
“There’s ample evidence that, when administered correctly, cannabis is an effective treatment for ailments ranging from PTSD and chronic pain to multiple sclerosis and epilepsy disorders,” he said. “I seriously encourage all members of this committee to ask themselves if they’re willing to be what stands between veterans and these innovative therapies, with 18 veterans dying each day by suicide, countless more succumbing to chronic pain and fallout from prescription opioids. I know I’m not.”
But even Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), a pro-legalization lawmaker who has championed marijuana banking reform through several legislative vehicles, seemed to cast doubt on the prospects of his colleague’s proposal advancing to the floor.
“I would say to my friend, you and I are on pretty much on all fours on this,” Perlmutter said. “But I would say that the committee and the chair have a fair objection that this is legislating on an appropriations bill and that you and I just have our work cut out and we just need to get this thing passed so that there’s no issue about it, which we’ve been doing it pretty much 24/7.”
Beside the veterans amendment, the Rules Committee was also expected to take up a pair of measures from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) that would have prevented the use of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds to enforce the federal prohibition on medical and recreational cannabis use or possession in federally assisted public housing.
But just before the committee hearing, the amendments were withdrawn. The reason behind that decision more broadly concerned the need to build buy-in for the reform in the House, rather than procedural complications, a source familiar with the thinking told Marijuana Moment.
HUD said last year in a letter to the congresswoman that it is required to continue denying federally assisted housing to people who use marijuana, even if they’re acting in compliance with state law.
Norton sent a letter to HUD Sec. Marcia Fudge, imploring the department to use executive discretion and not punish people over cannabis in legal states. But HUD’s response was clear: It said that “consistent with federal law, HUD prohibits the admission of users of marijuana to HUD assisted housing, including those who use medical marijuana.”
Meanwhile, the Rules Committee also rejected two other drug policy amendments to the spending package. One sponsored by Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) would have reduced funding for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program by $32 million and increased the National Forest System budget by $25 million in order to “support enforcement and remediation of illegal marijuana trespass grow sites on federal lands.”
The other, from Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), would have simplified and streamlined the federal registration process to study Schedule I drugs such as cannabis and certain psychedelics while also permanently classifying fentanyl-related substances in that restrictive category.
The bills that these amendments could have been attached to already contain a number of relevant reform measures. For example, there are provisions to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators, safeguard tribal cannabis programs and remove certain restrictions on marijuana advertising in legal states. In one bill, appropriators have also excluded a long-standing rider that has prevented Washington, D.C. from implementing adult-use cannabis sales.
The Rules Committee must still also advance a second, separate package of spending bills that already contain a wide range of cannabis and psychedelics provisions. For example, a key rider that the Appropriations Committee recently voted to include in one of those bills would protect state, U.S. territory and tribal marijuana programs from Justice Department interference.
Lawmakers on the panel also took up a separate defense bill earlier this month, making in order key cannabis and psychedelics amendments, many of which passed on the floor last week. For example, the House approved Perlmutter’s marijuana banking measure, including it as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).