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.”
New Zealand Marijuana Legalization Trails In Early Referendum Results, But More Votes To Be Counted
A New Zealand referendum to legalize marijuana is trailing, according to preliminary election results released on Friday. But with hundreds of thousands of ballots remaining to be counted, the final outcome won’t be known until late next week.
Polls in the country closed on October 17, but elections officials don’t count referendum votes on election night. Instead, the preliminary results were tallied over the subsequent days and released Friday afternoon local time in New Zealand, with final results expected to be announced on November 6.
According to the initial election data, forty-six percent—1,114,485 people—voted for the referendum and 53 percent—1,281,818 people—were against it.
But the final outcome is still unknown. The early numbers don’t include an estimated 480,000 or more so-called special votes, which are expected to account for roughly 17 percent of all cast ballots. The category includes votes by citizens overseas, those who only recently registered to vote as well as people serving prison sentences of less than three years. It also includes students who are attending schools out of the districts where they are normally registered to vote.
— Electoral Commission | Te Kaitiaki Take Kōwhiri (@ElectoralCommNZ) October 30, 2020
Observers expect the special votes will be disproportionately in favor of legalization, which means the measure may still have a chance of passage.
Still, according to Justice Minister Andrew Little, it is “highly unlikely” that the result will flip when all is said and done. “For the cannabis referendum result to change it would require roughly 70 percent of the special votes to go in favor,” he said.
That said, Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick, who has been at the forefront of the nation’s legalization debate, said she remains “optimistic.”
“Today’s result shows what we had long assumed, that it was going to be really close and that we need to wait for the specials to be sure of the result,” she said. “We have said from the outset that this would always come down to voter turnout. We’ve had record numbers of special votes.”
Win or lose, New Zealand’s referendum marks the first time an entire country’s voters have been asked to decide whether to legalize cannabis. Unveiled in April, the federal government’s proposal would allow adults 20 and older to purchase and possess marijuana as well as cultivate up to two plants for personal use. The proposal would also open cannabis coffeeshops, where on-site consumption would be permitted.
A government levy on marijuana sales would be used to boost national health services, though it hasn’t yet been decided what the rate would be.
The public referendum resulted from a deal the country’s Green Party struck after agreeing to help install Labour Party leader Jacina Ardern as prime minister following the country’s 2017 election.
Passage of the referendum would make New Zealand just the third country with a national law allowing cannabis sales, following Uruguay and Canada. A handful of other nations, meanwhile, have policies allowing personal possession and home cultivation.
Going into the election, polls of likely voters showed a tight race, with opponents leading in some surveys and supporters ahead in others.
Even if voters are shown to have ultimately approved the referendum when all the ballots are counted next week, legalization wouldn’t happen automatically. Parliament would still need to enact the proposed legislation, and lawmakers could make changes along the way.
People with past cannabis-related convictions likely wouldn’t see their records cleared under the plan. Little, the minister of justice, said earlier this month that his office has no plans to erase past convictions even if the referendum passes. He nevertheless acknowledged that the drug war isn’t working.
“Up to 80 percent of New Zealanders are saying in surveys that they have at some time in their lives tried cannabis,” Little said. “Prohibition is not prohibiting cannabis. It’s in our communities, so it is time to decide on whether to control it.”
On provisional results of the two referendums voted on in the 2020 General Election, the electorate has voted in support of the End of Life Choice referendum, and against the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill becoming law. https://t.co/LVHKmH4c2l
— Andrew Little (@AndrewLittleMP) October 30, 2020
But on Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, the justice minister said that “there are no other plans that we have for broader drug reform.”
But if voters ultimately reject the measure, Ardern, the prime minister, has indicated there may still be a path forward for some reforms, even if it’s not full-scale legalization. The official, whose party won handily in this month’s elections, said use should be treated as a public health matter rather than a criminal justice problem.
“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will look at the way the Misuse of Drugs Act amendments are being applied, making sure we’ve got the addiction and treatment facilities that we need, and making sure those referrals are happening in the cases where they should,” she said on the campaign trail this month, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Ardern refused to say during the campaign whether she planned to vote for the referendum. But on Friday, after the preliminary results were announced, her office said that she voted in favor of it.
Mississippi Supreme Court Won’t Consider Challenge To Medical Marijuana Measure Until After Election
The Mississippi Supreme Court announced on Wednesday that it won’t weigh the merits of a last-minute legal challenge to medical marijuana ballot measures that voters will decide on next week until after Election Day.
The case, filed on Monday by the mayor of the city of Madison, alleges that state law was not properly followed to place the cannabis issue before voters.
The top state court had initially directed the secretary of state to respond to the complaint by the end of business on Wednesday. But in a new one-page order, Chief Justice Michael Randolph rescinded the earlier filing and instead asked that the official weigh in by next Friday, November 6—three days after voters will decide on the two competing medical cannabis measures that appear on their ballots.
Madison’s emergency petition cites a law stipulating that “signatures of the qualified electors from any congressional district shall not exceed one-fifth (1/5) of the total number of signatures required to qualify an initiative petition for placement upon the ballot.” But that policy went into effect when Mississippi had five congressional districts, and that’s since been reduced to four, making it mathematically impossible to adhere to.
“Petitioners’ challenge to the filing of the petition for Initiative Measure No. 65 is a challenge to form,” the filing from Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler (R) says. “The measure could be about any topic, and its constitutional invalidity would remain. No matter what the content of the measure is, the petition signatures are insufficient under the plain language” of the Constitution until the lawmakers institute a fix.
“It is unfortunate that the Legislature’s failure means that the Constitution cannot be amended by initiative until either Section 273(3) is amended or Mississippi regains a congressional seat,” the lawsuit states, adding that the mayor isn’t necessarily against medical marijuana itself.
She wants the court to deem the placement of the legalization initiative unconstitutional and “issue whatever extraordinary writs appropriate” to nullify the vote.
Under the activist-driven reform measure, patients with debilitating medical issues would be allowed to legally obtain marijuana after getting a doctor’s recommendation. The proposal includes 22 qualifying conditions such as cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, and patients would be able to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.
Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), the campaign behind the initiative, has faced a series of obstacles before and after qualifying for the state’s November ballot.
Most recently, President Trump’s reelection campaign issued a cease and desist order against the Mississippi advocates, claiming “unauthorized and misleading representation” of the president’s position on the reform measure in one of its mailers—even though he has on multiple occasions spoken favorably on camera about medical cannabis.
But the primary complication for advocates is the fact that two competing initiatives will appear alongside each other on the ballot. After MCC qualified their measure by collecting signatures from voters, the legislature approved an alternative that is viewed as more restrictive. The result is a muddled ballot that requires voters to answer a two-step series of questions—and that potential confusion threatens to jeopardize the activist-led proposal.
The Mississippi State Medical Association and American Medical Association have also contributed to the opposition, circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject Initiative 65.
Earlier this month, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed legislation that amends state law to allow people to obtain marijuana-derived medications that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He also reiterated his opposition to broader medical cannabis reform, stating that he’s “against efforts to make marijuana mainstream.”
In June, lawmakers introduced yet another medical cannabis alternative resolution that would’ve similarly posed a threat to the activist-driven reform initiative. But, to advocates’ relief, the legislation didn’t advance before lawmakers went home for the summer.
Mississippians for Compassionate Care Communications Director Jamie Grantham called the new lawsuit “meritless.”
“This is simply a last-ditch effort by political and bureaucratic opponents to deny relief to patients with 22 specific debilitating medical conditions,” she said.
This isn’t the first time that this election cycle that courts have been involved in state-level cannabis legalization ballot initiatives.
The Montana Supreme Court last week rejected a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a marijuana legalization measure that will appear on the state’s November ballot.
With weeks before the election, opponents asked the court to quash the measure, arguing that because it involves appropriating funds, it violates state statute on citizen initiatives. The court didn’t weigh in on the merits of the case; rather, it said the petitioners with the reform campaign failed to demonstrate “urgency or emergency factors” that would justify moving the case into its jurisdiction instead of going through trial and appeals courts first, which opponents said they will now do.
In neighboring Nebraska, the state Supreme Court ruled last month that a measure to legalize medical cannabis that had qualified for the November ballot could not proceed because it violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives.
Activists there are already pursuing a simplified medical cannabis measure for 2022.
Read the Mississippi chief justice’s order below:
Cory Booker Urges New Jersey Voters To Legalize Marijuana As Data Shows Supporters Outraising Opponents
Another one of the most prominent elected officials in New Jersey is urging the state’s voters to approve a marijuana legalization referendum that’s on their ballots next week. Meanwhile, new campaign finance data released by the state shows that supporters of the cannabis reform measure are outraising opponents by more than a 200-to-1 ratio.
“This is an important question,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said in a new video published by the NJ CAN 2020 campaign on Wednesday. “I hope as you fill out the front of your ballot, you will look at the back and see that question, ballot question number one, and that you will vote to legalize marijuana in New Jersey for adult use. We can do this as a state so much more responsibly, and instead of destroying lives we can get more resources to help to empower the well-being of all New Jerseyans.”
Booker, who has been a leading champion for federal cannabis reform in Congress, said that “we have seen how the drug war has not been a war on drugs, but a war on people.”
“Veterans, for example, are more likely to be arrested for drug use or possession of marijuana. Instead of getting help. They’re often hurt by a system that piles upon them criminal charges for doing things that two of the last three presidents admitted to doing,” he said, adding that African Americans, Latinos and low-income people are also disproportionately targeted by enforcement.
Meanwhile, a report released on Thursday by the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) shows that committees supporting the referendum have raised $2,074,030 in campaign contributions. That’s compared to just $9,913 brought in by opponents.
“Assuming all available funds are spent, the marijuana ballot question already ranks eighth among the top ten most expensive public referenda in the Garden State,” ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle said. “Keep in mind that marijuana interests already have spent $4.1 million on lobbying between 2017 and 2019. So the industry’s overall political investment in New Jersey already has topped $6 million.”
The new numbers reflect data filed through October 20, and additional post-election spending data will be released on December 1.
Earlier numbers released two weeks ago pegged the fundraising disparity at a ratio of nearly 130 to 1.
If voters approve the referendum, legal recreational marijuana sales could potentially begin within mere weeks through the state’s existing medical cannabis dispensaries under a plan laid out this week by the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.
A hearing to get a head start on planning legal cannabis implementation was scheduled for last week, but that was canceled when the senator went into quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Booker, for his part, is framing legalization as a matter of criminal justice reform.
“It will help us to join with other states who are seeing through legalizing you could better regulate its usage, you can have more and more tax dollars that can be applied to state priorities, from education to treatment,” Booker said in his new video. “And, we see how we begin to end what has been a very dark and unfair chapter in criminal justice in America.”
In any case, if polling is any indication, it appears that voters are poised to pass the cannabis referendum on their ballots next week.
A survey released last week found that that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the marijuana referendum. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.
The results are statistically consistent with three prior polls from the same firm, as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released this month by Stockton University showed three-to-one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has also been actively campaigning in favor of the referendum, participating in fundraisers and ads to encourage voters to approve it.
For example, the governor recorded a video that was released by NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month, outlining why he’s embraced the policy change. Murphy said that the ongoing criminalization of cannabis in New Jersey wastes taxpayer dollars, and he emphasized that prohibition is enforced in a racially disproportionate manner.
The governor similarly said in a recent interview that the marijuana reform proposal prioritizes social justice.
“I wish we could have gotten it done through a legislative process,” he said at the time, referencing lawmakers’ inability to advance a legalization bill last session. “We just couldn’t find the last few votes, so it’s on the referendum. I’m strongly supporting it—first and foremost for social justice reasons.”
Murphy also recently called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
He said in July that legalizing cannabis is “an incredibly smart thing to do” both from an economic and social justice perspective.
The governor isn’t alone in his attempts to get out the vote for cannabis reform. Filmmaker Kevin Smith earlier this month urged his Twitter followers to “VOTE YES when you see State Public Question Number 1: Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana.”
NJ CAN 2020 released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads this month, after having published one prior ad.
In June, the state Assembly passed a cannabis decriminalization bill that would make possession of up to two ounces a civil penalty without the threat of jail time, though it hasn’t advance in the Senate.