A powerful Senate committee on Wednesday approved an amendment that’s meant to promote military veterans’ access to medical marijuana by allowing doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue cannabis recommendations in legal states.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), passed in the Senate Appropriations Committee on a voice vote. It would further prohibit VA from interfering with, or denying services to, veterans who participate in a state-legal medical cannabis program
“We have now 36 states that have medical cannabis, and our veterans want to know from their VA doctor what their thoughts are on the pros and cons or appropriate role or challenges of this particular strategy for treating a variety of issues, including PTSD,” Merkley said. “I think it’s really important that we not force our veterans to be unable to discuss this issue with their doctors.”
Watch the senator discuss his amendment, starting 1:38:50 into the video below:
Here’s the text of the amendment, which is now part of a bill to fund the VA for Fiscal Year 2022:
SEC. ___ None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Veterans Affairs in this Act may be used in a manner that would—
(1) interfere with the ability of a veteran to participate in a medicinal marijuana program approved by a State;
(2) deny any services from the Department to a veteran who is participating in such a program;
or (3) limit or interfere with the ability of a health care provider of the Department to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms, or take steps to comply with such a program.
The senator introduced a similar proposal in 2018 that also cleared the Appropriations Committee.
The House on several occasions has approved legislation to allow VA doctors to issue medical marijuana recommendations to their patients, but it has never been enacted into law. Some lawmakers have expressed concern that, even if the VA funding provision were added, government physicians could still be penalized by the Justice Department if they filled out cannabis forms while the substance remains a federally prohibited.
Multiple pieces of veterans- and marijuana-specific legislation have been introduced this Congress.
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Reps. Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI) filed a bill—titled the Fully Informed Veteran Act—in May that would simply allow VA doctors to provide basic information and resources about state-legal cannabis programs to veterans.
A pair of Republican lawmakers introduced a congressional bill in April that’s meant to promote research into the medical potential of marijuana for veterans.
That was filed one day after a bipartisan Senate bill was introduced—and on the same day that House members filed companion legislation—to require VA to conduct clinical trials into marijuana for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain in the population.
Last year, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved a prior version of that bill, as well as a separate proposal to allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to their patients in states where it’s legal.
Also in April, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers reintroduced legislation that would federally legalize medical marijuana for military veterans.
A large-scale spending bill that passed the House last week includes report language that says federal health agencies should pursue research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics for military veterans suffering from a host of mental health conditions.
It also acknowledges that VA has clarified that veterans are eligible for home loan benefits even if they work in a state-legal marijuana industry. However, it expresses disappointment that VA hasn’t taken further action to communicate this policy to lenders and borrowers and directs the department to improve its communication and report back to Congress on its progress within 180 days of the enactment of the legislation
Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and other lawmakers have pressed VA on difficulties some veterans have faced in securing the benefit, with at least one constituent telling Clark that they were denied a home loan because of their work in the state-legal cannabis market. That prompted the congresswoman to circulate a sign-on letter and introduce an amendment to resolve the problem.
Clark’s amendment to address the problem was approved by the House as part of a previous defense spending bill—though leaders in the chamber agreed to scrap it after the Senate didn’t include it in its version of the legislation.
The report also notes “progress” that VA has made when it comes to marijuana research. However, advocates have been critical of the agency in this respect. For example, VA offered written testimony recently opposing the bill expand clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for military veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.
Read the text of the Senate Appropriations Committee amendment on veterans and marijuana below: