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.”
Andrew Yang Contrasts Rampant Opioid Prescribing With Marijuana Criminalization
Andrew Yang contrasted the widespread prescribing of opioids with the ongoing criminalization of marijuana on Wednesday.
In a tweet, the entrepreneur and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said there were “more opiate prescriptions in the state of Ohio than people in Ohio,” yet “marijuana is still classified as a schedule 1 drug” under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
#DidYouKnow – There were more opiate prescriptions in the state of Ohio than people in Ohio. But marijuana is still classified as a schedule 1 drug.
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) December 11, 2019
He’s brought that point up before, at a presidential debate in October. Asked about his proposed to decriminalize possession of opioids to combat the drug overdose crisis, Yang brought up the statistic and criticized the government for failing to take action against pharmaceutic companies that aggressively marketed addictive painkillers.
“If the government turned a blind eye to this company, spreading a plague among its people, then the least we can do is put a resource into work in our communities so that people have a fighting chance to get well, even though this is not a money problem,” he said at the time.
— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) October 16, 2019
NBC News confirmed that, in 2010, federal data shows there were 102.4 opioid prescriptions in Ohio for every 100 persons. That’s decreased since then, with 2017 data showing 63.5 opioid prescriptions for every 100 persons in the state.
Yang, who supports comprehensive marijuana legalization, has also embraced other harm reduction policies. Beyond decriminalizing opioids, he said in an interview published last week that he’s in favor of providing federal funding for the establishment of safe injection facilities, where individuals can use illicit drugs under medical supervision and receive assistance getting into treatment.
Yang has not yet called for decriminalization of substances beyond opioids and cannabis, however. That policy is backed by rival contenders South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, also presidential candidates, have called for the establishment of safe injection sites.
Photo courtesy of ABC News.
Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed In Virginia Ahead Of Attorney General’s Cannabis Summit
The attorney general of Virginia held a cannabis summit on Wednesday, with representatives of states that have legalized marijuana sharing their insights as lawmakers in the Commonwealth prepare to push reform legislation in the coming session.
This event came one day after a lawmaker prefiled a bill to legalize marijuana for adult use and expand the state’s existing limited medical cannabis program.
The event featured panels on marijuana decriminalization, social equity, public health, hemp, CBD and creating a pathway for eventual legalization. The goal was to answer policy questions and inform legislation, which Attorney General Mark Herring (D) hopes will start with decriminalization and expungements and later adult-use legalization.
Herring: “I don’t believe Virginia’s current system of needlessly criminalizing cannabis is working. The negative consequences of the current approach fall disproprtionately on African Americans and other people of color.”
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) December 11, 2019
“I don’t believe that Virginia’s current approach of criminalizing cannabis is working,” Herring said in his opening remarks. “It is needlessly creating criminals and burdening Virginians with convictions.”
Today we're bringing together legislators, stakeholders, and policy experts to plot a course for a smarter, fairer, more just cannabis policy in VA. For me, that means decriminalizing now, resolving past convictions, & moving to legal, regulated adult use.https://t.co/aqWxQCVPIg
— Mark Herring (@MarkHerringVA) December 11, 2019
“The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers. And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color,” he said. “It’s clear to me that the time for cannabis reform has come. Justice demands it. Virginians are demanding it. And I’m going to help make sure we get this right.”
Watch video of the Virginia Cannabis Summit below:
Representatives from Colorado and Illinois discussed law enforcement and equity in regulated marijuana markets.
The prospects of passing reform measures greatly increased in Virginia after November’s election, which saw Democrats reclaim control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in decades. Herring said the timing is right to “plot a course for a smarter, fairer, more just cannabis policy” in the state.
Sen. Dave Marsden (D), co-founder of the legislature’s recently established Cannabis Caucus, said at the summit that ensuring that the legal market is equitable is paramount.
.@SenDaveMarsden, who co-founded the new Cannabis Caucus, says focusing on equity will be important. “We can’t substitute a civil process for a criminal one and not expect it to lead to disparities,” he says of decriminalization, noting how people of color still impacted most.
— Martin Austermuhle (@maustermuhle) December 11, 2019
“We can’t substitute a civil process for a criminal one and not expect it to lead to disparities,” he said.
“Following several years of forming consensus around medical cannabis products, we have to be ready to take action in the upcoming legislative session to further reform our laws in this arena,” he said in a press release. “This effort will include a more robust medical cannabis program and Attorney General Herring’s summit is a big step in ensuring we are knowledgeable on the issue and prepared to do this right.”
“Virginia is ready for evidence-based reform and that is what we will provide.”
Del. Stephen Heretick (D) said the summit “is a great opportunity for me and my fellow legislators to learn from the experiences of other states as we consider how to create more fair, just, equitable, and effective cannabis laws here in Virginia.”
Decriminalization is the first proposal on the agenda when the next session starts, the attorney general said. That would fulfill a campaign promise of Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who ran on the issue in 2017 and talked about in his State of the Commonwealth address this year.
“It’s time for public policy to catch up with public opinion, and NORML applauds Attorney General Herring for his efforts to foster and advance evidence-based cannabis laws,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML said. “We look forward to supporting the attorney general and the Virginia Cannabis Caucus in their work reforming marijuana laws for a safer Commonwealth.”
While Northam hasn’t voiced support for recreational legalization, Herring said last week that Wednesday’s summit is one resource that will help the state move toward comprehensive reform.
“Criminalizing marijuana possession is not working.” Attorney General @MarkHerringVA said he will host a #cannabis summit to advance decriminalization in Virginia. #CheddarLive pic.twitter.com/ecB4BSQo5w
— Cheddar (@cheddar) December 3, 2019
“Based on my conversations, he supports decriminalization,” Herring, who is also running for governor in 2021, said. “Like a lot of people, I think they’d like to get more information about what legalization and what regulated, adult-use would look like.”
A bill to decriminalize marijuana and make possession of up to one ounce punishable by a maximum $50 civil penalty was prefiled in the legislature last month.
This latest legalization bill, introduced by Del. Lee Carter (D), will likely be a heavier lift. It would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers, and it would impose a 10 percent tax, revenue from which would go toward a veterans fund, transportation and local municipalities that allow marijuana businesses to operate.
“While a majority of Virginians agree with Attorney General Herring that marijuana should be legal for responsible use by adults, it may take a bit more work to convince the Virginia General Assembly to send such a bill to the governor’s desk,” Michelle Pedini told Marijuana Moment. “Todays summit is an important, and historic, step toward that goal, and NORML is proud to be a part of it.”
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Thailand Prime Minister Uses Medical Marijuana At Event With Ganja Mascot
Top officials in Thailand are getting the word out about medical marijuana—in part by distributing cartoon cannabis dolls and publicly using marijuana oils.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the launch of the government’s medical cannabis education site on Wednesday and appeared at an event alongside a person wearing a spectacled marijuana leaf costume called Dr. Ganja. Children were also present, carrying their own Dr. Ganja dolls.
The Thai government officially launches its medical cannabis "educational" website today.https://t.co/zhzZU61q3c
The Prime Minister gets a ganja doll, kids get a ganja doll, everybody gets a ganja doll!
Photo credit: Bhumjaithai Party pic.twitter.com/lVf1WTguqQ
— Prim Chuwiruch (@prim_chuwiruch) December 11, 2019
Prayut argued in favor of the therapeutic use of cannabis, stating that it represents a potential treatment option for low-income people in particular. According to The Nation Thailand, he also demonstrated marijuana products, inhaling an oil and applying some to the back of his ears. The prime minister also said he plans to purchase some oils himself.
The government’s education site features information about where to find cannabis clinics, what kinds of products are available and infographics laying out basic research into marijuana.
Thai lawmakers have made clear their excitement about medical cannabis, with several filmed participating in a ritual dance in August to celebrate the first batch of marijuana oil.
— Reuters Latam (@ReutersLatam) August 8, 2019
Months after Thailand opted to legalize medical marijuana, the ruling party unveiled draft legislation in September that allows individuals to cultivate up to six cannabis plants for personal use.
Photo courtesy of Bhumjaithai Party.