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Trump Administration Opposes Bills On Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans

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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.

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.”

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 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.”

IAVA voiced support for both the Veterans Equal Access Act and the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act.

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.”

Military Veterans Organizations Press Congress On Medical Marijuana Research

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Local Massachusetts Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure

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Local Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics—the latest in a national movement to reform laws on entheogenic plants and fungi.

Prior passing the measure in a 9-0 vote, the Somerville City Council took testimony from two people with personal experience benefiting from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Several members of the council also discussed the failures of the drug war and the potential medical value of entheogenic substances, particularly as it concerns mental health.

The resolution was supported by the mayor.

“By decriminalizing psychedelic plants, Massachusetts can mainstream harm-reduction strategies as therapists and health providers embrace these compounds for physical, psychological, and spiritual relief,” Decriminalize Nature, Bay Staters for Natural Medicines and the Heroic Hearts Project said in written testimony to lawmakers.

“Somerville has a chance to empower our neighbors, friends, and loved ones to seek the physical and spiritual relief they need and put public health above incarcerating people even in cases of addiction and abuse of controlled substances,” they wrote.

Under the proposal, enforcement of laws against psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca would be among the city’s lowest priorities. It also calls on the county prosecutor to cease pursing cases for persons charged with possessing or distributing entheogens.

The measure states that “the City Council hereby maintains it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the investigation and arrest of adult persons for planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing entheogenic plants… shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Somerville.”

It also stipulates that “no City of Somerville department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults.”

The resolution emphasizes that the measure would not allow for commercial sales of these substances, nor would it permit driving while under the influence of them.

“I love living in a city where this is not controversial and you got unanimous support,” Council President Matt McLaughlin said at the close of the meeting. “Let’s end this war on drugs, and this is a good step.”

Watch the lawmakers discuss the psychedelics reform resolution, starting around 25:45 into the video below: 

With Thursday’s vote, Somerville joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. that have enacted psychedelics decriminalization. Most of the reforms have advanced legislatively, though Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize via the ballot in November.

Three other cities—OaklandSanta Cruz and Ann Arbor—have also decriminalized possession of plant-and fungi-based psychedelics.

In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. The governor announced in November that applications for an advisory board to oversee implementation of the program were being accepted up until January 1.

Much of this reform progress can be traced back to Denver, which became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Since then, activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in pursuing psychedelics decriminalization.

In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution last month that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.

A California state senator plans to file a bill to decriminalize psychedelics for the 2021 session.

Meanwhile, after Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution in September, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”

Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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North Dakota Lawmakers File Bill To Significantly Expand Marijuana Decriminalization Law

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North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in the state.

The legislation, which was filed on Monday, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.

Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.

Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.

Possessing more than 250 grams of marijuana would be a class B misdemeanor and possessing more than 500 grams would be a class A misdemeanor.

The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Sen. Scott Meyer (R) in their respective chambers. It’s been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 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.

“It’s encouraging to see Rep. Roers Jones and her colleagues continue the push to reduce harsh and senseless penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Decriminalization is no substitute for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults, as several of North Dakota’s neighbors have now done. But passage of this bill would continue the trend of progress the state has seen in recent years.”

Activists are moving forward with plans to put a cannabis legalization ballot initiative before voters in 2022.

The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, was submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday. If its language is accepted, the campaign will be able to start signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

The same team behind the new initiative came close to putting a similar measure on the state’s ballot last year, but petitioning efforts were impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.

A separate group of advocates, Legalize ND, also attempted to qualify a different legalization initiative in 2020 that would have allowed retail sales but excluded a home grow option. That organization is also considering plans for its own 2022 measure.

Previously, a 2018 legalization push that did qualify for the ballot was defeated. Voters in the state did approve a measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, though the law was scaled down by the legislature the following year.

While activists are skeptical that the legislature has the appetite to enact the policy change on their own, it is the case that lawmakers may feel increased pressure given that voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana elected to legalize cannabis in November.

Read the new North Dakota marijuana decriminalization bill below: 

North Dakota Decriminalizat… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Says Marijuana Legalization Is A 2021 Priority

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Virginia Senate Holds First Marijuana Legalization Hearing, With More Scheduled Next Week

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A Virginia Senate committee held an initial hearing on Friday on a bill to legalize marijuana that was introduced with support from the governor just two days ago.

The legislation’s quick consideration by the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee is an early sign that lawmakers intend to advance it expeditiously. Two additional hearings are scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in a newly formed subcommittee of the panel that’s specifically focused on cannabis policy.

The bill, which is being carried by top Senate and House leaders, would create a system of regulated and taxed marijuana sales and production, and allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to one ounce of cannabis and cultivate up to four plants for personal use, two of which could be mature.

After the bill is considered by the new marijuana-focused subcommittee next week, the full Rehabilitation panel is expected to hold a vote next Friday to refer it to the Senate Judiciary Committee. After that panel considers the legislation, it would head to the Finance Committee before coming to the full Senate floor.

At the initial hearing, members heard testimony from a representative of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) administration and asked questions about components of the bill such as those concerning expungements and social equity grants.

The legislation’s provisions have been informed by two official state studies on legalization that were recently conducted by a legislative commission and a separate working group comprised of four Virginia cabinet secretaries and other officials, both of which looked at how to effectively implement legalization and submitted recommendations to the governor’s office late last year.

Those studies were required under a marijuana decriminalization bill that was approved last year.

Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into the new legislation, including provisions to promote social equity in the cannabis market. Notably, it would also apportion almost half of the tax revenue the state collects from marijuana sales to funding pre-kindergarten education—a policy championed by First Lady Pamela Northam.

The state’s alcohol regulatory body would be renamed the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage and Cannabis Control Authority, and it would be responsible for promulgating rules and issuing licenses.

A new 21 percent tax would be imposed on cannabis sales, and local jurisdictions that allow marijuana businesses to operate could levy an additional three percent tax. Existing state sales taxes would also apply on purchases, for a total potential 30 percent tax rate.

Revenue from the new state tax would go toward funding pre-k education (40 percent), a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Fund (30 percent), substance misuse and treatment programs (25 percent) and public health initiatives (five percent).


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 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.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Brad Copenhaver, who testified on behalf of the Northam administration on Friday, emphasized that the “keystone of this entire bill is marijuana legalization of a social equity endeavor.”

Advocates have celebrated the bill’s introduction and are optimistic about the prospects of getting the reform enacted this session, but they also feel the legislation as proposed can be improved upon.

One problematic provision from advocates’ perspective is that the bill would make public consumption a misdemeanor, whereas currently it is a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine.

Additionally, it seems to increase the fine for people aged 18-20 who possess cannabis. The fine would be $250 for a first offense, and the legislation also stipulates that underage people could be subject to mandatory substance misuse treatment for violating the law.

This introduction of the bill comes one month after the governor included provisions to lay the groundwork for cannabis legalization in a budget proposal that also calls for millions of dollars to support expungements. Northam had campaigned on merely decriminalizing possession, but he publicly backed broader legalization of marijuana for adult use in November.

Northam said during his State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday that cannabis prohibition was deliberately enacted as a means to discriminate against people of color.

“The administration’s proposal does an excellent job of centering equity and restorative justice, but we are greatly concerned by the proposed rollbacks of newly enacted decriminalization measures and creation of new crimes for consumption and possession,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, told Marijuana Moment.

“Not only would this escalation in criminalization not increase public safety, this will specifically target young, Black, Brown, and poor Virginians, those who are already overwhelmingly and disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition,” Pedini, who also serves as NORML’s national development director, said. “Governor Northam wants to get this right, and NORML will be offering policy guidance to help the administration do just that. It’s time to move forward, not backward, with cannabis policies in the Commonwealth.”

Separate legislation to legalize cannabis for adult use was filed by Del. Steve Heretick (D) last week.

Meanwhile, legislation to stop police from searching people or seizing property based solely on the smell of marijuana in Virginia is set to take effect after lawmakers adopted recommended changes from the governor in October.

Also during the recently concluded special session, Northam signed another bill that will allow people issued summonses for cannabis offenses under the state’s new decriminalization law to prepay their civil penalty rather than having show up in court.

USDA Releases Final Rule For Hemp, Two Years After Crop Was Federally Legalized

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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