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.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Presses Housing Secretary About Marijuana Eviction Policies
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pressed the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) about policies that cause public housing residents and their families to be evicted for committing low-level offenses such as marijuana possession on Tuesday.
During a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, the congresswoman first quoted HUD Secretary Ben Carson from a 2017 speech where he acknowledged that the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted minority communities.
“Do you acknowledge that the war on drugs disproportionately impacted black communities and communities of color despite marijuana and other drug use levels being comparable to white communities?” she asked the secretary for the record.
“Traditionally that has been the case,” Carson replied.
@SecretaryCasron: "I'm always in favor of more flexibility." pic.twitter.com/7ze07GqZc9
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 21, 2019
Ocasio-Cortez went on to say that she was concerned that “the negative impact of the war on drugs has not been limited to incarceration” and that “we had legislative rippling effect that also seems to have been codified in our housing system”
She pointed to two specific HUD policies: the “one strike” rule, which allows property managers to evict people living in federally assisted housing if they engage in illicit drug use or other crimes, and the “no fault” rule, which stipulates that public housing residents can be evicted due to illicit drug use by other members of their household or guests—even if the resident was unaware of the activity.
Carson said that property owners in individual jurisdictions have discretion when it comes to enforcing the policy, but he conceded that these rules are in effect under federal law.
“So a person could be stop and frisked and be found in possession of a small amount of marijuana and then be evicted or have their entire family evicted from public housing?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“That is a possibility,” Carson said.
Who says progressives can’t get stuff done?
Thank you @SecretaryCarson for your testimony in front of the Financial Services Committee today.
We have many crises in housing, & I look forward to reversing the unjust legacy laws from the War on Drugs in our public housing system. https://t.co/ZK8aFsyIxo
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 21, 2019
The congresswoman then asked if Carson was aware of the “no fault” rule, to which he replied that the “use of such activity is extremely limited, if ever used.” Ocasio-Cortez responded by stating that the policies “are still codified in federal law” and asked whether the official supports “reversing some of these provisions” such as the “no fault” rule.
Carson said he was willing to talk about individual cases, and the congresswoman followed up by noting that there’s a lack of holistic review for these cases. Given Carson’s interest in hearing details about individual cases, she wondered if he’d “support being able to move some of these policies to a more holistic review.”
“Should that case-by-case consideration be codified in federal law instead of having blanket, one-strike or no fault policies?” she asked.
“I’m always in favor of more flexibility,” he said, signaling that he’d be open to reforming some of the anti-drug policies in effect federally at HUD.
Should Carson decline to take action, legislation introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) in April would protect public housing residents who use marijuana in compliance with state law from being evicted.
Ocasio-Cortez herself has filed a bill that would prevent public housing applicants from being denied due to a low-level drug conviction that resulted in a sentence of under ten years and prohibit drug testing of applicants “as a condition of such housing assistance,” among other reforms.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill
Four 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have signed onto new legislation to federally deschedule marijuana—while a handful of other White House hopefuls are notably missing as original cosponsors.
The companion bills introduced on Monday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and use some tax revenue from marijuana sales to provide grants to socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals to participate in the legal industry.
It would also set aside money to support efforts to expunge past marijuana convictions.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI)—who are each seeking the Democratic presidential nomination—are cosponsoring the bills.
But Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Reps. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) have so far declined to give the legislation their signature, despite their overall support for marijuana reform.
Bennet was an original cosponsor of a similar bill that Schumer filed during the 115th Congress.
The reasons he and other candidates decided against joining as original cosponsors of the new legislation are unclear, though some of them may end up adding their names at a later date.
For Booker, it’s possible that the senator doesn’t feel that the bill goes far enough in terms of promoting social equity—which is why he hasn’t supported separate cannabis reform legislation introduced this Congress.
Outside of the presidential candidates, Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Tom Carper (D-DE) also cosponsored last year’s version but are not yet on the new proposal.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are moving ahead with plans to pass more modest cannabis reform legislation, including a bipartisan bill to give marijuana businesses access to banks that cleared the House Financial Services Committee in March.
Photo courtesy of Evan Johnson.
Two Federal Agencies Schedule Meetings To Discuss Marijuana-Related Issues
Two federal agencies recently announced that they will be holding meetings this summer to discuss public health and safety issues related to marijuana.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a notice published in the Federal Register last week that its Board of Scientific Counselors will convene on July 16 and 17 to tackle a wide variety of topics, including how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and how to balance intramural and extramural research initiatives.
On the second day of the meeting, which will be open to the public, the panel of experts will also discuss the role of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in “addressing public health concerns related to marijuana.”
Separately, on June 11 and 12, members of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug Testing Advisory Board will meet for a conversation about federal workplace drug testing policies. Part of that meeting will involve a discussion of “emerging issues surrounding marijuana legalization.”
While the Federal Register filing does not spell out which “emerging issues” will be specifically addressed during the first day’s public session, it also notes that the board will discuss the “impact of cannabis laws on drug testing and future direction” in a closed session on the second day of the meeting.
The federal discussion comes as marijuana reform advocates have stepped up efforts to end the employer practice of penalizing workers who test positive for THC metabolites.
In New York City, for example, a City Council measure prohibiting pre-employment drug testing for cannabis in specific industries and another barring such tests for people on probation were both enacted this month without the mayor’s signature.
While federal marijuana laws continue to strictly prohibit cannabis, the growing legalization movement has forced various agencies to address the issue. Officials from some federal divisions have observed in recent months that the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law has inhibited research into its public health benefits and risks.
In December, representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and National Institute on Drug Abuse were part of a workshop focusing on cannabis research.
U.S. government agencies have also used Federal Register notices to solicit the public’s help in identifying studies about the effects of cannabis on disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.