The denial of home loans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to military veterans because of work in the state-legal marijuana industry is prompting congressional action.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee included language in a report attached to a 2020 VA funding bill demanding clarification on the issue:
“Home Loan Income Verification.—The Committee is aware of the Department’s denial of home loan guarantees to Veterans solely on the basis of the Veteran’s documented income being derived from state-legalized cannabis activities. The Committee is concerned that the Department has never publicly stated its position on this matter, hindering Veterans’ ability to fully understand and consider how employment decisions could affect future eligibility for earned benefits. The Committee therefore directs VA to publicly clarify its position on this matter no later than 180 days after the enactment of this Act.”
Separately, Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Julia Brownley (D-CA), the chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, are also currently circulating a congressional sign-on letter to VA about the issue.
“Recently, a veteran reported that his VA home loan guarantee application was denied based on his employment in a state-legal cannabis industry. The VA’s response indicated that the Department considered the Veteran’s source of income not to be ‘stable and reliable’ enough for the purpose of mortgage applications,” the lawmakers wrote in a cover message seeking signatures from other members of Congress for the VA letter.
“Because the VA believes that this income can be forfeited or seized under federal law, they won’t deem it suitable for a VA loan,” Clark and Brownley told their colleagues in the note, which was obtained by Marijuana Moment. “The VA also explained that if VA employees were to accept this income for the purpose of a loan application, they could technically be prosecuted by DOJ for money laundering.”
The draft letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, like the appropriations bill report language, presses VA to clarify its position on the issue.
“A vast majority of U.S. states have now legalized medicinal and/or recreational cannabis in some form, giving rise to a state-legal industry that generates up to $11 billion per year in sales, creates over $1 billion in state-collected excise tax revenues, and supports the livelihood of over 211,000 Americans,” the letter to the secretary says. “A substantial number of veterans earn their livelihoods in this industry, and in coming years, that number is likely to further rise.”
“The VA must acknowledge this reality and ensure veterans who work in this sector are able to clearly understand and can equitably access the benefits they’ve earned.”
“The ambiguity under which the cannabis industry operates is unique, and we fully understand the VA’s resulting aversion to legal and financial risk,” the draft letter to Wilkie states. “Denying veterans the benefits they’ve earned, however, is contrary to the intent Congress separately demonstrated in its creation of VA benefit programs.”
While VA has provided guidance on certain related matters such as a clarification that veterans will not lose their VA benefits just for using cannabis and specifying that the department’s physicians can discuss marijuana usage with patients but not issue formal recommendation for medical cannabis, the department hasn’t put anything in writing concerning housing loan qualifications for veterans who work in the marijuana market, at least not publicly.
“Yet, the VA has not issued any policies or guidance on this topic, leaving veterans with no way to clearly and readily understand whether their choice of legal employment in this industry could result in the denial of benefits they’ve earned,” the letter says.
“We ask that you reply in the next 30 days detailing the Department’s position on loan guarantees, and that to the extent practicable, you also include information about whether a veteran’s eligibility for any other specific VA benefit is jeopardized solely on the basis of their employment in a legal cannabis industry in a given state. We also request that your reply include an assurance that you will begin the process of issuing guidance to publicly clarify the VA’s position on this matter.”
Separately, the House Appropriations Committee report attached to the VA funding bill also includes a section demanding VA explain its efforts to conduct research on marijuana’s therapeutic benefits for veterans:
“Cannabis Research.—The Committee recognizes that continued focus on the discovery of treatment alternatives for Veterans diagnosed with various conditions, such as chronic pain and PTSD, is essential to reducing the number of Veteran suicides. For this reason, the Energy and Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act, 2019 (P.L. 115– 244) urged VA to utilize funds to prioritize investments in research on the efficacy and safety of cannabis usage among the Veteran population for medicinal purposes and submit a report to the Committee no later than 180 days after enactment of that Act. The report has yet to be submitted to the Committee, therefore the Committee directs VA to provide a status update of this outstanding report no later than 15 days after the report is filed.”
Similar language was included in a report from the same committee last year, but VA apparently has not complied with the prior request to issue a report to Congress on the matter.
Veterans and cannabis issues have been front and center in the 116th Congress, with three pieces of related legislation having been discussed at a House veterans subcommittee hearing in April. Two of those bills were set to get a full committee vote on Wednesday, but they were pulled from the agenda after the chairman decided to instead hold a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing focused specifically on the marijuana proposals.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Louisiana Lawmakers Send Medical Marijuana Expansion And Cannabis Banking Bills To Governor’s Desk
Louisiana lawmakers sent bills to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program and to allow cannabis businesses to access banks to the governor’s desk over the weekend.
The expansion legislation—which the House of Representatives initially approved last month and cleared the Senate on last week with one amendment—would allow physicians to recommend medical cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.
Because the Senate added language that requires dispensaries to record medical marijuana purchases in the state prescription monitoring program database, it had to be returned to the House for reconsideration. The final version was approved by the body in a 74-16 vote on Sunday and is now being transmitted to Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for signature or veto.
As originally drafted, the bill sponsored by Rep. Larry Bagley (R) would have simply added traumatic brain injuries and concussions to the list of conditions that qualify a patient for a marijuana recommendation. But it was amended in a House committee to add several other conditions as well as language stipulating that cannabis can be recommended for any condition that a physician “considers debilitating to an individual patient.”
Under current law there are only 14 conditions that qualify patients for the program.
Bagley told Marijuana Moment he’s “excited” that patients “can now have another choice for pain relief.”
“This entire process for me has been to help people in pain that had no other choice but opioids,” he said. “My seat on the Traumatic Head and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund has opened my eyes to people who are constantly in pain. I’m proud to have lead the charge to help people in need, not only in District 7, but the state of Louisiana.”
Another bill headed to Edwards’s desk would protect banks and credit unions that service cannabis businesses from being penalized by state regulators. That measure cleared the Senate on Friday by a tally of 29-0 after being approved by the House last month.
Lawmakers also passed a House bill to provide legal protections for doctors who recommend medical marijuana as well as authorized medical facilities that have cannabis patients in their care. The vote was 34-2 in the Senate on Friday, and a committee amendment meant it had to head back to its originating chamber, which made an 80-11 vote of concurrence on Sunday, sending the legislation to the governor.
A House-passed resolution to create “a task force to study and make recommendations relative to the cannabis industry projected workforce demands” was given final approval by the Senate on Sunday in a vote of 28-6. Text of the legislation states that “there is a need to study the workforce demands and the skills necessary to supply the cannabis industry with a capable and compete workforce, including physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners.”
Also on Sunday, the House voted 95-0 to reject changes to a bill to establish rules for industrial hemp and CBD products. On Friday, the Senate had voted 34-0 to advance the legislation while adding an amendment allowing regulators to obtain criminal records of applicants. The House speaker, who is the lead sponsor of the legislation, took exception to the language and is now seeking a bicameral conference committee to reach an agreement.
Bagley, the medical cannabis expansion legislation sponsor, had also introduced a House-passed bill to provide for delivery services to patients, but he voluntarily withdrew it from Senate committee consideration last month and told Marijuana Moment it’s because he felt the medical marijuana expansion legislation would already allow cannabis products to be delivered to patients like other traditional pharmaceuticals.
The delivery bill would have required a government regulatory body to develop “procedures and regulations relative to delivery of dispensed marijuana to patients by designated employees or agents of the pharmacy.”
It remains to be seen if regulators will agree with Bagley’s interpretation, as doctors are still prohibited from “prescribing” cannabis, and marijuana products are not dispensed through traditional pharmacies. That said, state officials recently released a memo authorizing dispensaries to temporarily deliver cannabis to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s possible they will be amendable to extending that policy on a permanent basis.
The Senate was also slated to consider separate House bills adding specific new medical cannabis qualifying conditions over the weekend but did not bring them up. It’s not clear what the practical impact of those proposals would be if Bagley’s broader measure allowing doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any debilitating malady is enacted.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
New Congressional Resolution Condemns Police Brutality And War On Drugs
Twelve House members introduced a resolution on Friday condemning police brutality in light of the recent law enforcement killings of two black individuals that have galvanized mass protests. The measure specifically notes the racial injustices of the war on drugs.
The resolution is partly motivated by the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, where a police officer suffocated him to death, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, where she was fatally shot by police during a botched drug raid.
Protests have erupted across the U.S. this week, with calls for justice and law enforcement accountability. The new House measure, if adopted, would formally align the body with that sentiment, condemning police brutality, racial profiling and excessive use of force.
The drug war has contributed to those problems, the lawmakers said, with people of color being more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than white people despite similar rates of consumption.
The “system of policing in America, and its systemic targeting of and use of deadly and brutal force against people of color, particularly Black people, stems from the long legacy of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and the War on Drugs in the United States and has been perpetuated by violent and harmful law enforcement practices,” a provision of the resolution states.
In addition to condemning “all acts of brutality, racial profiling, and the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers and calls for the end of militarized policing practices,” the resolution urges the Justice Department to investigate individual cases of police violence and racial profiling and establish all-civilian review boards to provide community oversight of policing.
The measure also “calls for the adoption of sound and unbiased law enforcement policies at all levels of government that reduce the disparate impact of police brutality and use of force on Black and Brown people and other historically marginalized communities.”
Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Karen Bass (D-CA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) led the resolution. Other cosponsors include Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Katherine Clark (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA).
The resolution @Ilhan & I are introducing today aims to ensure that those responsible are held accountable and calls for systemic reforms at all levels of government to end the scourge of police brutality in our society. #SaveLivesNow https://t.co/8vlMiY4j83
— Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (@RepPressley) May 29, 2020
“From slavery to lynching to Jim Crow, Black people in this country have been brutalized and dehumanized for centuries,” Omar said in a press release. “The war on drugs, mass criminalization, and increasingly militarized police forces have led to the targeting, torture and murder of countless Americans, disproportionately black and brown.”
We can’t just continue to watch our communities be brutalized by the police.
I am proud of my sisters in Congress for joining me in condemning police brutality and look forward passing this resolution. https://t.co/qeSaRB5dMZ
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 29, 2020
“The murder of George Floyd in my district is not a one-off event. We cannot fully right these wrongs until we admit we have a problem,” she said. “As the People’s House, the House of Representatives must acknowledge these historical injustices and call for a comprehensive solution. There are many steps on the path to justice, but we must begin to take them.”
Advocacy groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Drug Policy Alliance, Color of Change, ACLU chapters and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have endorsed the resolution.
This measure is being introduced one week after 44 members of the House sent a letter to the Justice Department, calling for an independent investigation into a fatal police shooting of Taylor.
In that letter, the legislators cited prior excessive force incidents with two of the three officers involved in Taylor’s shooting—as well as prior alleged improper enforcement by the department’s SWAT team in a botched marijuana raid—as evidence of the need for an investigation.
“For too long, Black and brown bodies have been profiled, surveilled, policed, lynched, choked, brutalized and murdered at the hands of police officers,” Pressley said about the new resolution. “We cannot allow these fatal injustices to go unchecked any longer. There can be no justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or any of the human beings who have been killed by law enforcement, for in a just world, they would still be alive. There must, however, be accountability.”
Joe Biden’s New Disability Plan Includes Boosting Medical Marijuana Research
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s new plan for people with disabilities involves promoting research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana.
The former vice president, who remains opposed to broader cannabis legalization, said he will “ensure people with disabilities have a voice in their government and are included in policy development and implementation.” That includes cannabis policy.
“A Biden Administration will prioritize the research needed to advance science-based federal policies related to the use of marijuana for medical conditions, chronic pain, and disabilities,” the plan, released on Thursday, states.
Thirty years ago, I proudly cosponsored the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. It was an enormous step forward, but there's more work to do. So today, I’m releasing my plan to achieve full participation and equality for people with disabilities: https://t.co/psuNvKzYej
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) May 28, 2020
This is another example of Biden featuring marijuana issues in broader policy platforms. Earlier this month, he released a plan on racial justice that included his existing modest cannabis reform proposals for decriminalization and automatic expungements.
But while advocates agree with the need for those policy changes, they’ve remained disappointed about Biden’s ongoing opposition to adult-use legalization—something they argue should go hand-in-hand with the social justice principles he’s touted.
The presumptive nominee has argued that more research needs to be done on the potential risks and benefits of marijuana before he’s be open to legalization. In a recent interview, a host pushed back and said, anecdotally, there have been decades of research given that millions of people consume cannabis.
Biden agreed and said he knows “a lot of weed smokers” but, in agreeing to that premise, he seemed to signal the people he knows who consume marijuana have demonstrated the need to maintain prohibition.
While he’s given no indication that he’s willing to embrace legalization ahead of the November election, some are holding out hope that a criminal justice task force he formed with former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will push him in that direction. Most of the members of that group support legalization.
The former vice president does support legalizing medical marijuana, rescheduling cannabis under federal law, decriminalizing the plant, providing for automatic expungements and allowing states to set their own laws.