Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have come out against a series of bills that are designed to protect VA benefits for veterans who use marijuana, allow the department’s doctors to recommend medical cannabis and expand research into the plant’s therapeutic potential.
Lawmakers and advocates representing veterans discussed the proposals during a congressional hearing on Tuesday. And while the Trump administration representatives present said the department opposes the bills, support was widespread among witnesses and subcommittee members, at least for some of the legislation.
“This is the first time we’ve had a hearing like this with a substantive committee,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said. “One of the great tragedies of our time is the failure to adequately address the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan… An overwhelming number of veterans tell me that cannabis has reduced PTSD symptoms [and] the dependency on addictive opioids.”
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA), chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, thanked Blumenauer for introducing his Veterans Equal Access Act, which would allow VA physicians to issue medical cannabis recommendations for veterans. She said “it’s an important bill” and that she’s also heard from veterans who want the proposed policy change.
I just testified in @VetAffairsDems on veterans access to medical cannabis. @RulesDemocrats are discussing how we can achieve universal health coverage w/ #MedicareForAll. @HouseJudiciary is holding its first hearing on the #ERA in 36 yrs.
— Earl Blumenauer (@repblumenauer) April 30, 2019
The congresswoman also thanked Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) for filing his VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which would require the VA to conduct a clinical study on the benefits and risk of medical marijuana in the treatment of conditions such chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s time to make sure that veterans get to know what cannabis is good for and what cannabis is not good for. We need medical research,” Correa said. “We owe our veterans a tremendous amount. The least we can do is make sure we’re giving them the proper treatment for those invisible wounds that they brought back from the battlefield.”
“I agree we need to push the VA forward on this,” Brownley said.
The panel also talked about a bill from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) that would codify an existing VA policy prohibiting the department from stripping veterans of their benefits just because they use cannabis in compliance with state law.
After the lawmakers spoke to make the case for their respective legislation, veterans advocates and three VA officials offered their feedback and took questions from the committee.
Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention in the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, said that the department opposes all of the cannabis bills. She said the proposal to require the VA to conduct clinical research on medical cannabis is too ambitious and risky, stating that “a smaller, early-phase trial design would be used to advance our knowledge of benefits and risk regarding cannabis before moving to a type of more expansive approach as described in this proposed legislation.”
“Any trial with human subjects must include an evaluation of the risks and safety and include the smallest number of participants to avoid putting subjects at increased risk unnecessarily so,” she said. “For these reasons, we don’t support this proposed legislation.”
Franklin said the department opposes allowing VA clinicians to recommend medical cannabis because of guidance it’s received from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). VA doctors are prohibited from recommending cannabis in legal states because the DEA “advised VA that no provision of the controlled substances act would be exempt from criminal sanctions as a VA physician who acts with intent to provide a patient with means to obtain marijuana.”
Finally, the VA opposes Steube’s bill, she said, because there is already a VA policy stating that veterans won’t lose their benefits for using cannabis or discussing their usage with a VA health care provider.
The congressman, however, has said his bill is needed to codify the protection into law so that a future administration could not reverse it.
Among the advocacy groups—the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV)—there was particularly strong interest in advancing the legislation to mandate VA research into medical marijuana.
Joy Ilem, national legislative director of DAV, said the group concurs “that research is necessary to help clinicians better understand the safety and efficacy of cannabis use for specific conditions that often cooccur in the veteran population such as chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.”
Carlos Fuentes, director of national legislative services at VFW, also endorsed that bill. He said that “VFW members tell us medicinal cannabis works, and it is a more suitable option than the drug cocktails VA prescribes” and that “VA must research how medicinal cannabis can help veterans cope with PTSD and other conditions such as chronic pain.”
"The VFW is proud to support the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019 … VA must expand research on the efficacy of non-traditional alternatives to opioids, such as medicinal cannabis and other holistic approaches." #VFWTestimony
— VFW National HQ (@VFWHQ) April 30, 2019
But while VFW supports the “intent of the Veterans Equal Access Act”—Blumenauer’s bill to allow recommendations from VA physicians—Fuentes said the group “cannot offer its support at this time.” At issue is the fact that the VA wouldn’t be able to provide medical marijuana at its pharmacies if a VA doctor issued a recommendation.
The VFW agrees with the intent of the Veterans Equal Access Act, but cannot offer its support at this time. #VFWTestimony
— VFW National HQ (@VFWHQ) April 30, 2019
“The VFW agrees that veterans relying on the VA health care system must have access to medicinal cannabis if such therapies are proven to be effective in assisting and treating certain health conditions,” he said. “Without such evidence, VA would not have the ability to prescribe or provide medicinal cannabis to veterans. It is unacceptable for VA providers to recommend a treatment that is unavailable to veterans at their VA medical facilities.”
Vets who participate in such programs must not fear VA will take away benefits they earned & deserve. However, we cannot support requiring VA providers to recommend participation in state-approved marijuana programs if VA is unable to provide such recommended course of treatment
— VFW National HQ (@VFWHQ) April 30, 2019
IAVA voiced support for both the Veterans Equal Access Act and the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act.
@StephMuls before @VetAffairsDems @HouseVetAffairs Health Subcommittee: Says 90% of @IAVA Members support research into medicinal cannabis research, calls on Congress to pass the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (HR 712).
— Tom Porter (@TomPorterDC) April 30, 2019
Addressing the second panel, Franklin, the committee chairwoman, spoke strongly about the “frustration” created by VA’s ongoing resistance to policies that veterans support.
“We’ve got a couple of bills before us, which I think are good bills. And the VA doesn’t support those bills,” she said. “We have [veteran services organizations] speaking in favor of these bills. This seems to be an issue that has been going on now for a while—this schism between what the VA believes and what the VSOs want.”
“This is a big frustration for me because I think it’s overwhelmingly clear amongst the American people and amongst our veterans across the country that this is an issue that they are keenly interested in and want to have access to,” she said. “I guess my question is, how are we going to reconcile this?”
Larry Mole, the VA’s chief consultant on population health, pinned the blame on the Justice Department. He said that the committee “could make strong proposals” in support of reforming VA cannabis policy, but that “at the end, we will need to go back to DEA and the Department of Justice for their opinion.”
“I’ve not seen anything myself that suggests their opinion will change,” Mole said.
Be that as it may, the Republican ranking member of the subcommittee did propose one possible solution: rescheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substance Act.
“We’re not I think in a position here to protect the VA physicians who want to disperse or prescribe cannabis unless we change that law,” Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL) said. “So we might be looking at the wrong leverage point when we address these laws without addressing the scheduling of the drug.”
“I could not agree with you more that we ought to be doing research on this,” he said. “I think we ought to change the schedule to Schedule II. It seems like every committee I go in we have another discussion about cannabis.”
Brownley concluded the hearing by saying that she believes there is a “nexus” between cannabis reform and suicide prevention among veterans.
“I think we just have to really be committed to the cannabis issue and to the suicide issue, but where this nexus is.”
Marijuana reform advocates celebrated the hearing and urged lawmakers to move the bills forward. Tuesday’s hearing was the second in the 116th Congress to address cannabis legislation after a separate committee debated a marijuana banking bill in February before voting to approve it last month.
“As the largest healthcare provider in the country, the VA must adopt its polices to appropriately serve the needs veteran community, especially when it comes to providing access to medical cannabis,” David Mangone, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access, told Marijuana Moment. “After returning from war, America’s heroes are faced with another battle at home against pills and suicide, and the trio of medical cannabis bills would give them the tools they need to help win this battle by providing less dangerous, non-addictive methods for symptom management.”
Don Murphy, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), noted that in “more than 30 states, members of Congress and their staff can use their federally subsidized health insurance to discuss the benefits of medical cannabis with their doctors.”
“Shamefully our veterans do not have this same right. MPP appreciates the effort of today’s bill sponsors to end this hero double-standard,” he said.
Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, said in a statement that “President Trump and Congress could literally save veterans’ lives by enacting these bills into law.”
“With opioid overdoses and a suicide crisis hitting our veterans, they deserve legal access to medical cannabis through their VA doctors as a safer alternative to the highly addictive and often deadly opioids and other pills the VA readily gives them,” he said. “These bills would provide the kind of research, legal access through VA doctors, and protection of earned benefits that veterans overwhelmingly want and deserve.”
GOP Congressman Falsely Claims Marijuana Can Be Legally Consumed In Public In ‘Many States’
A Republican congressman wrongly claimed that marijuana can be legally consumed in public in “many states” in a Twitter post on Friday.
Following a House vote in favor of anti-vaping legislation that also included a ban on menthol cigarettes, Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) argued that the bill is an example of government overreach and that it would not prevent youth from using vaping products.
“Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states,” he wrote in his tweet. “Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.”
Now, Democrats propose making possession of a menthol cigarette a violation of federal law when smoking a marijuana joint in public is legal in many states. Instead, we need to focus on real healthcare issues like surprise billing, the opioid epidemic and curbing coronavirus.
— Rep. Andy Barr (@RepAndyBarr) February 28, 2020
The claim about laws governing public cannabis consumption is likely to raise eyebrows among reform advocates familiar with state-legal marijuana programs.
It’s not the case that “many states” allow individuals to smoke in public areas. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly prohibited activities in legalization measures.
“Rep. Barr is anti-freedom and pro-false hysteria when it comes to cannabis,” Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “Sadly, his desire to continue to see hundreds of thousands of Americans be arrested and incarcerated due to minor marijuana charges is held far too many of his colleagues in Congress.”
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment that Barr’s “facts and priorities are wrong.”
“No legalization state allows public smoking of cannabis (other than in adult-only locations in some cases), and almost all medical cannabis states forbid it,” she said. “Marijuana isn’t associated with increased mortality, while cigarettes are associated with more than 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Why is Rep. Barr maligning and voting against the safer substance, and working to keep it illegal?”
Here are some examples of public consumption policies in legal cannabis states.
Alaska: For adults over 21 years of age, the law permits “consumption of marijuana, except that nothing in this chapter shall permit the consumption of marijuana in public.”
California: “You can consume cannabis on private property but you cannot consume, smoke, eat, or vape cannabis in public places.”
Colorado: “Using marijuana in any way—smoking, eating or vaping—isn’t allowed in public places.”
Illinois: “There is no public consumption allowed for cannabis. Smoking or consuming weed is illegal in motor vehicles and public spaces, including your front porch.”
Massachusetts: “You can’t use marijuana in any form (smoking, vaping, edibles, etc.) in public or on federal land.”
Nevada: “Adults 21 years and older can legally consume marijuana, but with restrictions on where it can be consumed: You cannot use marijuana in any public place.”
Oregon: “Recreational marijuana cannot be sold or smoked in public.”
Put simply, the notion that public consumption of marijuana is widespread is a false narrative. A standout exception is Oklahoma, where medical cannabis patients are able to consume wherever tobacco is permitted. That said, Barr’s assertion that public marijuana smoking is legal in “many states” is patently false.
That the congressman is perpetuating that narrative isn’t especially surprising, however. Barr is no fan on cannabis, voting against spending bill amendments preventing the Justice Department from using its fund to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs as well as a separate measure last year that would’ve extended protections to all state cannabis programs.
That said, Barr isn’t alone in his opposition to the menthol cigarette ban that cleared the House on Friday. Several Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the measure in committee and on the floor. But their reasoning was generally that the targeted ban would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
VA Notice About Researching Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans Deleted Shortly After Posting
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will soon release a notice announcing that it is seeking information about the potential of marijuana and its components to treat medical conditions that commonly afflict military veterans.
A post describing the request was briefly uploaded to a government website this week, though it’s since been deleted—but not before Marijuana Moment downloaded a copy. A representative said in response to an e-mailed query that the document was “rescinded for edits” and a revised version will be published “at a future date.”
VA’s Clinical Science Research and Development Service wrote in the filing that it is interested in establishing a research program designed to “examine the potential for medical marijuana and cannabinoids to treat disorders and diseases prevalent in our Veteran population.”
In a request for white papers on the topic, the department said it’s especially interested in identifying potential medical uses for cannabis to treat neuropathic pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Unrelieved neuropathic pain experienced by Veterans after spinal cord or peripheral nerve injury contributes to depression, anxiety, disrupted sleep, and overall decreased quality of life,” VA said. “PTSD, also highly prevalent in Veterans, is a mental health problem often co-morbid with chronic pain.”
“A large percentage of Veterans who seek relief from these conditions, resort to smoking marijuana or use unregulated dietary cannabis supplements, etc,” it continued. “It is therefore imperative to determine which cannabinoid compounds are truly effective, for which symptoms, in which populations, as well as the associated risks.”
VA said it is committed to researching and developing evidence-based treatment options for veterans, and that’s what the program is meant to address.
“Without the needed evidence base for medical marijuana, this will not be a treatment choice within VA,” the department wrote. “We hope to support a series of clinical trials, which in case of positive outcomes, will generate robust data to support the use of cannabinoid(s) for pain and/or PTSD (or one or more of its symptoms).”
The department plans to conduct clinical trials if the evidence indicates that medical cannabis can be useful. It touted the “cadre of experienced clinical investigators, a highly participatory research population, and mechanisms in place to support every aspect of clinical research.”
White papers submitted to VA under the now-deleted solicitation must contain four components: 1) the “formulation and route of administration of the cannabinoid preparation,” 2) their ability to manufacture and supply those preparations, 3) the investigational new drug registration for compounds that aren’t already approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and 4) evidence about the product’s efficacy in treating pain, PTSD and other conditions.
As drafted, the notice gives a deadline of March 15 to submit the requested one-page white papers, though it’s not clear if that will change when the updated notice is released.
Additionally, VA said it plans to collaborate with industry partners for “further understanding and development of evidence-based treatments such as medical marijuana and cannabinoids” and on April 27, will hold an “Industry Day” to discuss the “goals of the program.”
The department is “particularly interested in obtaining information about cannabinoid drugs availability, likelihood of their approval by the FDA (if not yet approved), and the data supporting their use for pain and PTSD treatment in Veterans,” the notice says.
Members of Congress and veterans advocates discussed the need for alternative treatment options, including medical cannabis, during a joint committee hearing earlier this week.
At the same time, bipartisan legislators are asking their colleagues to cosponsor a bill that would require VA to conduct research into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for veterans. That legislation already has 104 House cosponsors.
Read VA’s since-rescinded notice on medical marijuana research below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
House Democrats Block Amendment To Restrict Marijuana Products In Anti-Vaping Bill
House Democrats pushed back against a Republican attempt to include a flavored marijuana vaping ban in a broader anti-vaping bill that passed the chamber on Friday, arguing that it doesn’t make sense to prohibit products that are already illegal under federal law.
Instead, several lawmakers argued that Congress should enact separate cannabis reform legislation that could include provisions designed to protect public health and reduce the appeal of marijuana to youth.
The issue first came up during a House Rules Committee hearing on Wednesday, with Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) introducing an amendment to “include a prohibition against flavored marijuana products” such that they would be “treated in the same manner as flavored tobacco products” under the bill.
While the congressman argued that language of the legislation implicitly already provides for such a ban, he said it was important to clarify to send a message to young people that they can’t vape products containing nicotine or THC.
“Let it not be said in 2029 that we had a chance and we felt maybe we were getting to it in 2020,” he said. “Let’s just go ahead and do it. Let’s say you can’t sell flavored marijuana THC vaping products. My amendment makes that clear.”
Watch the conversation below:
Democratic members said they shared Griffith’s concern about underage use of flavored cannabis vaping products. However, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) pushed back and said the proposal is not germane because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and so regulating these products requires separate congressional action.
Earlier in the hearing, he suggested that his House-passed cannabis banking bill—the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act—could serve as a vehicle to address the body’s concerns.
“We have to start addressing it because we have 47 states that now are allowing some level of marijuana use when the statute under the Controlled Substance Act clearly makes it illegal,” the congressman said. “There’s a bill sitting in the Senate called the SAFE Banking Act that may get back here at some point, and we could put some testing and regulatory components on it.”
Watch this exchange below:
Is a flavored marijuana vaping ban even necessary?
Also during the hearing, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-GA) pressed Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) about the lack of specificity in the bill as it concerns marijuana vaping products. Woodall said he wanted that aspect addressed before he leaves office in nine months.
“It strikes me…more than strange that banana crush [nicotine vaping products] will no longer be available to adults in my district. But banana strawberry cream, which is an illegal [marijuana] product today, will continue to be available at 180 retailers near you,” Woodall said. “I don’t know how I take that message into my high schools and say that we’re going to reduce drug dependency in the months and years ahead.”
Watch the conversation below:
Pallone said he appreciates Woodall’s concern that flavored vaping products can mislead consumers about what they’re actually putting into their bodies and that he “would tend to think that the same problem would exist” for flavored marijuana products. However, he said there’s a distinction to be made.
“Most people tell me that nicotine is much more toxic and much more dangerous to your health than marijuana so maybe we shouldn’t have restrictions on marijuana at all and maybe we shouldn’t have any restrictions on flavored marijuana because the marijuana doesn’t have the same health problems that nicotine has,” he said. “Maybe I should say, assuming that marijuana is dangerous then maybe the flavored should be. But it’s not as dangerous.”
“The reality is that we know that nicotine is much more dangerous than marijuana so maybe the flavors masking it is not as serious a problem as it would be for nicotine,” he said.
Griffith’s amendment was blocked from floor consideration in a party-line vote of 3-6 by the panel, but the conversation around flavored marijuana products continued on Friday on the House floor.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) brought a poster board showing pictures of flavored cannabis vaping products and lamented that they are not explicitly included in the anti-vaping bill.
“If you want to do something about kids—if you want to do something about lung disease—then we need to do something about marijuana and the oils it gets mixed with that this bill does not address,” he said.
But Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) pointed out that if Republicans are interested in ensuring that such marijuana products are properly regulated, the substance needs to be removed from the Controlled Substances Act to provide Congress with the means to enact regulations.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer counters by pointing to marijuana's schedule I status, saying federal regulation of flavored cannabis would be like trying to regulate "flavored heroin." Plugs the MORE Act to deschedule marijuana. https://t.co/w4Jpudt137
— Emily Kopp (@emilyakopp) February 28, 2020
Imposing regulations on marijuana while it’s still federally prohibited is “like regulating flavored heroin,” he said. The congressman added that a bill to deschedule marijuana called the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would give lawmakers the tools to protect public health.
“The challenge that we have now is to be able to move forward—to be able to protect young people and the public,” Blumenauer said. “Cannabis is a red herring. If we tax and regulate it, then we can deal with the products they’re talking about. But unless and until we bring it—as two-thirds of the states have done—to actually tax and regulate it, we can’t deal with that. It doesn’t matter.”
We have a crisis of youth vaping. And we’ve seen a disturbing number of lung injuries & deaths tied to the oil used in marijuana vaping. Unfortunately #HR2339 before us today does nothing to impact either. Instead, it's a partisan publicity stunt by big government liberal elites. pic.twitter.com/AUx8ZMar0L
— Richard Hudson (@RepRichHudson) February 28, 2020
Not all Democrats were on board with the anti-vaping bill.
It was a tight 213-195 vote in the House on Friday. Top Democratic leaders are faced challenges as they worked to get the broader legislation approved. Some members of the party have expressed opposition over policies to ban flavored tobacco, including menthol, which they argue would lead to overpolicing of minority communities.
Image by Lindsay Fox from Pixabay.