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.”
Another Poll Shows Majority Of Americans Support Marijuana Legalization And Expungements
Another poll has found that a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana and clearing the records of those with prior cannabis convictions.
This one—commissioned by CBS News and released on the unofficial marijuana holiday 4/20—shows that 55 percent of respondents said recreational cannabis should be legal in their own state, compared to 42 percent who said it should be illegal.
— CBS News Poll (@CBSNewsPoll) April 20, 2021
While still a sizable majority, that’s notably lower than several other recent surveys, including those released by Quinnipiac University and the Pew Research Center this month. Those polls found that 69 percent and 60 percent of Americans back broad legalization, respectively.
Unique to this poll, however, is that participants were also asked about related cannabis issues. For example, 59 percent of adults said that people with non-violent marijuana convictions in states that have legalized should have their records cleared, versus 37 percent who said the conviction shouldn’t be expunged.
Nearly six in 10 think people who have been convicted of nonviolent marijuana offenses in states where marijuana is now legal should have those convictions removed.https://t.co/EEOGctREt1 pic.twitter.com/MnPKkH4GJT
— CBS News Poll (@CBSNewsPoll) April 20, 2021
Among those who were surveyed and live in a legal marijuana state, 60 percent said they favor the policy. And 53 percent of those living in states where prohibition is still on the books said cannabis should be legalized.
Twenty-three percent of respondents said legalizing cannabis would increase crime and 19 percent said it would decrease crime—but the majority (54 percent) said it would have “no effect.”
CBS also asked respondents whether they felt legalizing marijuana would lead people to use other drugs. Most people (45 percent) said the reform would have “not much effect” to that end, while 33 percent said they felt more people would seek out other substances and 17 percent said it would make people less likely to try other drugs.
Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) said legalization would boost local economies, while 14 percent said it would have a negative economic impact and 35 percent said it wouldn’t have much of an effect at all.
Interestingly, while most people backed legalization in the poll, 53 percent said that openly using marijuana socially is “unacceptable,” compared to 43 percent who said it was “acceptable”—perhaps more a reflection of respondents’ perception of other people’s views than their own.
Though many Americans think using marijuana openly is socially acceptable, most Americans do not. 43% think it is, though this rises to 70% among those who use marijuana at least on an occasional basis.https://t.co/EEOGctREt1 pic.twitter.com/pbTAWQckIS
— CBS News Poll (@CBSNewsPoll) April 20, 2021
The poll involved interviews with 1,004 adults from March 9-14 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Despite this latest example of polling showing that Americans favor ending prohibition, President Joe Biden is still not on board with extending that policy to the federal level, as confirmed again by the White House press secretary on Tuesday.
While the president says he supports allowing states to set their own policies, he feels it should only be decriminalized and rescheduled federally and wants more research to be done if he’s to change his position on broader reform.
This poll comes at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.
Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”
On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the chamber last year but did not advance in the Senate under GOP control.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
New House Bills Would Make Cannabis Businesses Eligible For Federal Small-Business Aid
Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced three new bills to make state-legal marijuana businesses eligible for federal small business services, including loans, disaster relief and grant programs.
The package of legislation is aimed at establishing parity for cannabis businesses, which are currently prohibited from receiving federal aid due to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. The country’s legal cannabis industry nevertheless now supports nearly 320,000 full-time jobs in the U.S., according to industry estimates.
With more states pursuing cannabis legalization, a growing number of legitimate small businesses are excluded from critical @SBAgov programs.
Read more about their legislation here 👇
— House Committee on Small Business (@HouseSmallBiz) April 20, 2021
The measures are largely similar to legislation introduced by the lawmakers in 2019, with some small changes.
One bill, sponsored by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), would allow marijuana businesses to access resources from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2021, which had not been assigned a bill number as of Tuesday afternoon, would expand access to services such as microloans, disaster assistance and the agency’s loan guaranty program.
“With more and more states pursuing legalization, including my home state of New York, there are a growing number of legitimate small businesses that are excluded from critical SBA programs,” Velázquez said in a statement, noting that much of the cannabis industry consists of small businesses.
Compared to Velázquez’s 2019 bill, the new version adds clauses meant to expand the availability of services. While the 2019 bill applied to SBA itself, provisions in the new legislation also prevent SBA intermediaries, private lenders and state and local development companies from declining to work with businesses simply because of their marijuana-related work.
Another new section deals with debentures—certain unsecured loan certificates—and clarifies that SBA may not decline to purchase or guarantee a debenture just because of a business’s involvement in cannabis. Nor can other small business investment companies decline to provide assistance to the cannabis sector.
“This legislation will spark growth by extending affordable capital to small firms in the cannabis space,” she continued. “Simultaneously, the bill acknowledges the structural disadvantages facing entrepreneurs of color and seeks to level the playing field.”
Another newly refiled measure, H.R. 2649, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA), would establish a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant program to provide funding to state and local governments to help them navigate the licensing process for cannabis businesses. The bill, which also removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, specifies that the grant money should be used to benefit communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war.
My #HomegrownAct would help small businesses navigate #cannabis licensing & employment with a focus on communities most impacted by the War on Drugs.
Read more here: https://t.co/Do7ek2STWB https://t.co/K91iHPcCqk
— Congressman Dwight Evans (@RepDwightEvans) April 20, 2021
“My bill would act as a poverty-buster and help homegrown small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy and our neighborhoods. We need to make sure that the booming legal cannabis industry does not become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies,” Evans said.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,000 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
A third bill, H.R. 2649, from Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME), would prohibit SBA partners that provide guidance and training services from denying help to businesses solely because of involvement in cannabis. The changes would affect providers such as SBA’s Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among others.
“Our continued economic recovery depends on the health of American small businesses of all kinds. Especially in this environment, no Maine small business owner should be turned away from crucial SBA programs that could help them create jobs and lift up the economy,” said Rep. Golden. “My bill would help address this problem by providing small business owners directly or indirectly associated with the cannabis industry with access to the services and resources they need to get their small businesses off the ground and grow.”
Meanwhile, federal lawmakers have been making headway on other cannabis-related proposals. The House passed a cannabis banking bill on Monday, and broader legislation to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced soon.
The banking legislation would ensure that financial institutions can take on cannabis business clients without facing federal penalties. Fear of sanctions has kept many banks and credit unions from working with the industry, forcing marijuana firms to operate on a cash basis that makes them targets of crime and creates complications for financial regulators. The full House passed the bill on a 321–101 vote.
“Even if you are opposed to the legalization of cannabis, you should support this bill,” sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said on the House floor. “The fact is that people in states and localities across the country are voting to approve some level of cannabis use, and we need these cannabis businesses and employees to have access to checking accounts, payroll accounts, lines of credit, credit cards and more.
Other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are working on legislation that would end federal cannabis prohibition completely.
Schumer said last week that the long-awaited proposal would be introduced “shortly” and placed on the floor “soon.” Schumer has so far declined to discuss the bill’s specifics, though he’s stressed that it will prioritize small businesses and people most historically impacted by the drug war.
In an interview with Marijuana Moment this week, Schumer worried that passage of the House banking bill could actually undermine broader congressional cannabis reform this year.
On the House side, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said recently that he plans to reintroduced his own legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which cleared the House in a landmark vote last year but did not advance in GOP-controlled the Senate.
Meanwhile, support for legalization among U.S. voters continues to grow. More than 9 in 10 Americans (91 percent) now support legalizing cannabis for either medical or adult use, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Friday. Sixty percent of respondents said that cannabis should be legal for both medical and adult use. Thirty-one percent said it should be legalized for therapeutic purposes only, while just eight percent said it should continue to be criminalized across the board.
A majority of those in every age, race and political demographic included in the poll said they feel marijuana should be legal in some form, although many Republicans remain wary of adult-use legalization. Seventy-two percent of Democrats favored both medical and adult-use legalization compared to only 47 percent of Republicans.
Among the minority in opposition to federal legalization: President Joe Biden (D). White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the president’s position on the issue “has not changed,” meaning he still opposes the reform. on Tuesday, Psaki refused to say whether Biden would sign or veto a cannabis legalization bill if passed by Congress.
The president instead backs modestly rescheduling the plant, decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, expunging prior marijuana records and letting states set their own policies.
Read the full text of the new legislation below:
Biden Won’t Commit To Sign Marijuana Bill If Passed By Congress, Press Secretary Says
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether President Joe Biden would sign or veto a bill to federally legalize marijuana if it arrives on his desk, noting that his cannabis policy position is at odds with broader proposals that congressional Democratic leaders are working on.
She was also asked about his stance on marijuana banking reform, the disconnect between public opinion favoring legalization and the president’s opposition and whether Biden plans to revisit clemency applications for those facing federal sentences over cannabis.
The noncommittal response to the legalization question comes on the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20—a day that has seen a wide range of politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), voice support for comprehensive marijuana reform.
Psaki was pressed on the Senate leader’s remarks and asked whether Biden would support legislation to end federal cannabis prohibition if Congress approved it.
“The president supports leaving decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, rescheduling cannabis as a Schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts and, at the federal level, he supports decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records,” she said. “He also supports legalizing medicinal marijuana so that’s his point of view on the issue.”
Biden’s positions to that end are well known, but an outstanding question has been whether his opposition to adult-use legalization is so strong that he would reject a reform proposal such as those currently being drafted in the House and Senate.
Asked directly what action the president would take if a federal legalization bill was sent to his desk, Psaki signaled that he wouldn’t be inclined to sign it, stating “I just have outlined what his position is, which isn’t the same as what the House and Senate have proposed, but they have not yet passed a bill.”
The reporter followed up to ask about a separate cannabis pledge Biden made as a presidential candidate, when he said people incarcerated in federal prisons over non-violent marijuana offenses should be released.
Psaki said that would be addressed if cannabis was rescheduled to Schedule II—a dubious claim given that there are still serious penalties for offenses involving substances in that category as well. She also didn’t provide any insight into whether the president is proactively pushing for the modest scheduling change.
Later in the briefing, the press secretary was asked where Biden stands on legislation to protect banks that service state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. The House approved the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act along bipartisan lines on Monday.
She said it was a “good question,” but she wasn’t sure and told the reporter she would follow up with a response later.
When pushed on Biden’s opposition to the legalization in the face of mounting, majority support among Americans, Psaki said that while he’s in favor of decriminalization and legalizing medical marijuana, he wants more research on the “positive and negative effects” of adult-use legalization.
“He’ll look at the research once that’s concluded,” she said. “Of course we understand the movement that’s happening toward it. I’m speaking for what his position is and what long, consistently has been his position. He wants to decriminalize, but again, he’ll look at the research of the positive and negative impacts.”
The press conference ended with a final question about cannabis policy—specifically whether the Biden administration plans to revisit requests for clemency for federal cannabis convictions. The reporter cited the case of Luke Scarmazzo, who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for operating a state-legal medical cannabis business in California, as an example.
“Given, as you’ve noted in the briefing, the president’s support for decriminalization, support for expunging exactly these types of offenses, are there any plans to revisit some of those bids for clemency?” the reporter asked.
“Well, I would just take it as an opportunity to reiterate that the president supports legalizing medicinal marijuana,” Psaki said. “It sounds like this would have been applicable in this case, and of course decriminalizing marijuana use and automatically expunging any prior criminal records. In terms of individual cases, I can’t get ahead of those obviously.”
These question come, of course, on 4/20. But they also come at a time when there’s a concerted push in both chambers of Congress to seize the opportunity they have with Democratic control to pass legalization legislation.
Schumer, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have been working on a bill on their side. The majority leader told Marijuana Moment on Monday that he’s working to push the president in a pro-legalization direction as they draft the measure.
Schumer said last week that the legislation will be introduced and placed on the floor “soon.”