Two Democratic U.S. senators filed legislation on Wednesday that would effectively legalize medical marijuana for military veterans and let government doctors help them access it.
Under the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) physicians would be empowered to issue medical cannabis recommendations in accordance with the laws of a growing number of states.
The legislation, sponsored by Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), also makes it legal under federal law for military veterans to “use, possess, or transport medical marijuana in accordance with the laws of the State in which the use, possession, or transport occurs.”
And, it requires VA to conduct studies on “the effects of medical marijuana on veterans in pain” and “the relationship between treatment programs involving medical marijuana that are approved by States, the access of veterans to such programs, and a reduction in opioid abuse among veterans.” The bill allocates $15 million for the research.
“Marijuana and its compounds show promise for treating a wide-range of diseases and disorders, including pain management,” the legislation’s findings section reads. “Medical marijuana in States where it is legal may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”
The protections for physicians and veterans would sunset after a period of five years.
Legalization advocates praised the new proposal.
“The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act would provide crucial medical and civil protections for the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve this country,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML. “It is unconscionable that these brave individuals who protect our nation’s freedoms would be treated as criminals when they return home just for treating their medical ailments with a safe and effective option.”
A growing number of military veterans use medical cannabis to treat PTSD, chronic pain and other mental and physical war wounds.
Schatz has been consistently outspoken in support of marijuana law reform. He has also signed onto several cannabis bills and pressed federal officials on the issue during Senate hearings.
But Nelson, who is facing a tough reelection fight this year, has never before cosponsored marijuana reform legislation.
Voters in his home state of Florida overwhelmingly approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, but its implementation has been slow and restrictive under the administration of Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is now challenging Nelson for the Senate seat.
“Federal law prohibits VA doctors from prescribing or recommending medical marijuana to veterans,” Nelson said in a press release. “This legislation will allow veterans in Florida and elsewhere the same access to legitimately prescribed medication, just as any other patient in those 31 states would have.”
Federal law bars VA doctors from prescribing medical marijuana to veterans. That’s not right. I just filed a bill to let these doctors prescribe medical marijuana to vets in Florida and the 30 other states where patients are legally allowed access to it. https://t.co/L5Pofyb7XG
— Senator Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) September 5, 2018
“It’s hard to overstate how big a deal it is that Sen. Nelson is stepping up and actually introducing a medical marijuana bill,” Ben Pollara, a Democratic strategist who’s worked on Nelson’s past campaigns and who ran Florida’s 2014 and 2016 medical cannabis ballot initiative campaigns, said in an interview. “A combination of overwhelming popular support and Rick Scott’s horrific record on medical marijuana as governor have made this an extraordinarily potent issue in U.S. Senate race. The result is a moderate senator with no previous history as even a cosponsor of cannabis legislation is now putting himself front and center.”
The House and Senate have each on several occasions approved amendments to let VA doctors recommend medical cannabis, but they have never been enacted into law.
Earlier this year, a more limited bill to encourage VA to research the potential benefits of medical marijuana for veterans became the first-ever standalone cannabis bill to be approved by a congressional committee.
“Historically, veteran and military communities have long been at the forefront of American social change, catalyzing the widespread acceptance of evolving cultural norms and perceptions surrounding racial, gender, and sexual equality,” Strekal, of NORML, said. “The therapeutic use of cannabis by veterans follows this trend and members of Congress should follow their lead and pass the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act.”
Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote
A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.
The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.
Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.
Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.
Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.
— Texas NORML (@TexasNORML) March 25, 2019
“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”
While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.
“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.
What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.
During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.
According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee
A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.
The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.
Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.
“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”
The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.
While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.
“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.
It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.
The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.
A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.
This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate
Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.
The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.
Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.
But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.
“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”
History is rarely made on the very first try. But, eventually, barriers do fall to those who are committed to breaking them down.
Join me live in Trenton as we recommit to passing adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement legislation. https://t.co/Ebts137XJ6
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”
I proudly stand with @GovMurphy, @SpeakerCoughlin, @SandraBCunningh & @SenatorScutari. We didn’t have the votes today, but we will continue to work together in order to bring adult use marijuana and criminal justice reform to New Jersey pic.twitter.com/BWxDchfiQ4
— Steve Sweeney (@NJSenatePres) March 25, 2019
“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.
"We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model," says @SpeakerCoughlin on cannabis legalization, medical Marijuana, & expungement bill package pic.twitter.com/CwT6C5WlsX
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 25, 2019
According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”
In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.
“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”
Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.
“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”
Our commitment to adult-use marijuana legalization and expungement has not wavered. We know the people of New Jersey are on our side.
Change is never easy, but we will keep fighting. pic.twitter.com/xMeay0MlTx
— Governor Phil Murphy (@GovMurphy) March 25, 2019
Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”
“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.
With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.
“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.
“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”
A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.
This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.