Senate Republicans have blocked a procedural vote to advance a bill to the floor that would promote research into the therapeutic effects of marijuana for military veterans with certain conditions.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) filed cloture on a motion to proceed for the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act last week, and that was rejected on Wednesday along party lines, in a 57-42 vote. It needed 60 votes in support to pass.
Schumer ultimately switched his own vote to a “no” in order to be able to enter a motion to reconsider under Senate rules. He said it was “regrettable that this bill, which so much helps our veterans, went down.”
“Our veterans need it. It was supported by all of our veterans groups. It had bipartisan, unanimous support in committee,” he said. “I hope that some of our members on the other side of the aisle who didn’t vote for it will reconsider.”
R's voting Yea: Cassidy, Collins, Hawley, Moran, Murkowski, Rounds, Schmitt, Sullivan.
Schumer voted no to enter a motion to reconsider.
Feinstein did not vote. https://t.co/gNq3iBGKC1
— Senate Periodicals (@SenatePPG) April 26, 2023
Though the bill isn’t technically dead, the vote raises practical questions not just about the prospects of the veterans legislation but also other bipartisan marijuana measures that lawmakers are working to advance, like cannabis banking reform.
The bill cleared the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in February, becoming the first piece of standalone marijuana legislation to advance through a panel in the chamber. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) is sponsoring the measure, alongside Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK).
Not only are they blocking VA from *researching* medicinal cannabis as an alternative treatment for veterans dealing with chronic pain or PTSD—they're blocking improvements to veterans homeownership efforts, community-based support, outreach, and more.
It's totally unacceptable.
— Senator Jon Tester (@SenatorTester) April 26, 2023
The proposal is intended to mandate studies by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to explore the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.
Tester said on the floor ahead of Wednesday’s vote that he understood that the cannabis proposal was “controversial” among GOP members, but he argued it was an important step to ensure that veterans have “a better understanding of the role that medicinal cannabis plays in treating the wounds of war.”
“Today it’s time to put political differences aside and do what’s right for our veterans,” he said, adding that the VA studies required under the bill could find that marijuana serves as an opioid alternative for veterans with chronic pain.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, spoke in favor of the measure, stating that “this is a effort to make certain that veterans are not doing something that is harmful to them and to make an informed decision.”
It may be possible that GOP senators who rejected the cloture proposal took issue with an amendment that Tester sought to attach to the bill that would add a number of non-cannabis items dealing with issues such as housing and senior care. But others, like Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), made clear their opposition to the specific marijuana language.
When the conversation about how to serve our veterans after all they sacrificed is to give them marijuana—we have failed our veterans.
— Sen. James Lankford (@SenatorLankford) April 26, 2023
Sullivan and Moran—along with Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Eric Schmitt (R-MO)—were the only Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to allow the measure to advance.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told CNN that the decision by most senators from his party to vote against allowing the bill to move forward came after a “spirited debate” in the caucus lunch earlier in the day.
He said some members had concerns about the structure of the proposed cannabis research at VA, arguing that it “would be done strictly through volunteers who would come forward and talk about their experience with marijuana and PTSD,” and “it depends on people to self-select and we don’t know how that would skew the results.”
He said negotiations on the legislation would continue and that the vote amounts to “hitting the pause button” for now.
4 years ago, I went to every county in PA to talk about marijuana.
Veterans were unanimously for having cannabis as a medical option for their PTSD.
This is common sense. https://t.co/Fe7RkfNG79
— Senator John Fetterman (@SenFettermanPA) April 26, 2023
Tester, for his part, criticized GOP lawmakers after the vote.
“In Montana, we respect and fight for the men and women who have defended our country and freedoms,” he said in a press release. “Today’s failed vote tells them that their government doesn’t value their sacrifices. By blocking consideration of a bill that passed unanimously out of committee two months ago, a group of Republicans today prioritized partisan politics over providing our nation’s veterans their hard-earned benefits and care.”
A House companion version of the standalone legislation was filed by Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) days before the Senate committee approval.
The bill has been revised in this latest version to give VA latitude in determining for itself whether it’s capable of overseeing clinical trials into marijuana for chronic pain and PTSD.
The significant change appears to be responsive to concerns expressed by VA officials who testified against the earlier proposals.
A previous version of the legislation cleared a House committee in 2021, despite the protests of VA officials. Earlier iterations of the measure also moved through committee in 2020 and 2018 as well, but none were enacted into law.
The legislation has been revised this Congress to include a requirement for a retroactive observation study to look into the experiences of veterans who’ve used marijuana for such treatment in the past outside of the clinical trail context.
But there’s another change that observers have picked up on as potentially giving VA the ability to avoid fulfilling a key objective on clinical trials.
Within 90 days of completion of an observational study on the effects of cannabis on PTSD and chronic pain, VA would be required to submit a report to Congress on whether it’s capable of carrying out the more robust clinical trials that were at the center of earlier forms of the legislation.
“The Secretary may terminate the clinical trials…if the Secretary determines that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to meet clinical guideline requirements necessary to conduct such trials or the clinical trials would create excessive risk to participant,” the bill text says.
The reason that’s important, in part, is because VA has repeatedly come out against past versions of the reform proposal, with the department suggesting that the research mandate goes too far with too many requirements. Under the new language, VA could finish the qualitative observational study and then independently decide against carrying out the clinical trial portion involving human subjects.
Other revisions in the new version include removing language that required studies to involve at least seven cannabis varieties and instead leaving that open-ended. That may help further address some of VA’s prior concerns about the measure being unduly prescriptive.
Correa had a conversation with VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans last year, and so there were some heightened expectations that the department might reverse course on the legislation—but that hasn’t happened to date.
A coalition of more than 20 veterans service organizations (VSOs) sent a letter to congressional leaders late last year to urge the passage of a marijuana and veterans research bill before the end of the last Congress. But that did not pan out.
Also, a large-scale defense spending bill that was enacted at the end of the last session excluded separate language from a previously House-passed version that would have authorized VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans living in legal states.
Meanwhile, bipartisan House and Senate lawmakers recently refiled bills to legalize medical marijuana for military veterans.
The bill would temporarily allow veterans to legally possess and use cannabis under federal law, as recommended by doctors in accordance with state law. Physicians with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would also be allowed for the first time to issue such recommendations.
Further, the measure would authorize VA to study the therapeutic potential of marijuana for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
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Despite the divided Congress with Republicans in control of the House, lawmakers have expressed optimism about the prospects of passing marijuana reform legislation this session.
Last week, the majority leader pledged to “work like hell” to advance reform, announcing plans to refile his comprehensive federal legalization bill while continuing work on a package of more modest cannabis legislation.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said recently that lawmakers are working to “resurrect” the so-called SAFE Plus package from last session, acknowledging that failure to advance a banking fix for the industry “literally means that hundreds of businesses go out of business.”
Meanwhile, a number of cannabis bills were filed last week leading up to 4/20, though lawmakers didn’t explicitly say that the timing was related to the unofficial marijuana holiday.
For example, Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) introduced legislation last week to protect the Second Amendment rights of people who use marijuana in legal states, allowing them to purchase and possess firearms that they’re currently prohibited from having under federal law.
Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have filed a bill to incentive state and local marijuana expungements with a federal grant program.
Congressional Cannabis Caucus co-chair Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) filed a measure last week that would allow state-legal cannabis businesses to claim federal tax deductions that are available to other industries. He told Marijuana Moment that he believes the reform would ultimately generate revenue for the government.
Earlier this month, Joyce and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed a measure designed to prepare the federal government for marijuana legalization, directing the attorney general to form a commission to study and make recommendations about regulating cannabis in a way similar to alcohol.