Senators could vote on another marijuana-related amendment to a must-pass defense bill that was filed on Thursday. Again, as was the case with a separate recently introduced research-related proposal, it’s not the cannabis banking legislation that stakeholders have been waiting for—but it would have broad implications for federal policy nonetheless.
The new amendment—filed Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Gary Peters (D-MI)—would add language to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to federally legalize medical marijuana for military veterans who comply with a state program where they live.
Physicians with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would also be allowed for the first time to issue such recommendations.
Further, it would require VA to study the therapeutic potential of marijuana for pain and reducing opioid misuse.
Separately on Thursday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved a bill that would require VA to conduct clinical trials on the medical benefits of cannabis for military veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.
The Senate defense legislation amendment is identical to a standalone bill—the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act—that Schatz filed in April. That measure currently has eight cosponsors, while a House companion version has 14 cosponsors.
Under current federal policy, VA allows its physicians to talk about cannabis use with veterans, but they’re prohibited from issuing recommendations that would allow their patients to obtain medical marijuana from state-legal markets.
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For the fiscal years 2022 and 2023, the amendment would set aside $15 million for VA to carry out the mandated medical cannabis research.
The legalization and physician recommendation provisions of the legislation would expire after five years, unless renewed by Congress.
This is the second cannabis amendment to be filed for NDAA.
Schatz and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) are also pushing to attach language to the large-scale legislation that deals with removing barriers to research on marijuana’s effects. It’s intended to streamline the application process for researchers who want to investigate cannabis as well as manufacture the plant to be used in studies.
That amendment is identical to standalone legislation that the senators filed in February, alongside Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The Senate unanimously approved an earlier version of that bill late last year, but it was not taken up by the House by the end of the session.
The research proposal would also clarify that physicians are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with patients and require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to submit a report on those potential health benefits, as well one on barriers to cannabis research and how to overcome those obstacles.
Dozens of other amendments have filed for NDAA so far, and industry stakeholders are eager to see if the Senate follows the lead of the House and inserts language meant to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses.
For now, the research and veterans amendments are the only cannabis-related measures that have been submitted, but it’s not yet clear when the overall bill will come to the Senate floor. If no senator files a banking amendment, the issue’s fate will be decided by a bicameral conference committee charged with reconciling the differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill before sending a final proposal to the president.
Senate leadership has spent a lot of time thinking about marijuana policy priorities this session, with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) saying repeatedly that they think comprehensive reform should advance before banking.
That said, Schumer did say during a recent podcast interview that he’s open to approving banking as part of the defense legislation if it contains social equity components. Booker, for his part, has been more obstinate, saying he “will lay myself down” to block any other senators who seek to pass marijuana banking legislation ahead of broad, justice-focused legalization.
Meanwhile, Feinstein, Schatz and Grassley separately filed the research amendment as part of a massive infrastructure bill earlier this year, but it was not given consideration on the floor.
House lawmakers, for their part, also passed legislation last year to expand cannabis research, but that bill did not advance in the Senate. The House bill, which would allow scientists to study the marijuana that consumers are actually purchasing at dispensaries, was reintroduced last month.
Congressional legislators are also advancing a separate strategy to open up dispensary cannabis to researchers. Large-scale infrastructure legislation that has passed both chambers in differing forms and which is pending final action, expected as soon as Friday, contains provisions aimed at allowing researchers to study dispensary cannabis instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.
The Senate research measure filed by Feinstein and Schatz includes no such provision to allow scientists to study dispensary cannabis, however.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel.