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.”
Senator Touts New Marijuana Legalization Bill In Floor Speech On Racial Justice
Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) talked up her new marijuana legalization bill during a speech on racial justice that she delivered on the Senate floor on Thursday.
The senator, whose “Substance Regulation and Safety Act” was introduced late last month, said that ending cannabis prohibition could help law enforcement devote more resources to serious crimes, rather than continue to criminalize people in a racially disparate manner.
“We could actually improve public safety by devoting resources to combating violent crime, rather than over-enforcing low-level offenses in communities of color. Let’s think about what this means for marijuana offenses,” Smith said. “The federal marijuana prohibition is a failed policy that contributes to mass incarceration and over-policing of communities of color.”
“White and black people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but a black person is almost four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. The federal government is behind both state law and public opinion. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already allow some type of marijuana use, despite the longtime federal prohibition.
While the senator recently introduced her own legalization bill, she also called on Congress to pass a separate reform bill that she’s cosponsored: the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act.
The legislation “would address the devastating impact on communities of color of a war on drugs by expunging marijuana-related convictions and then reinvesting in community,” she said.
“It is time to legalize marijuana, and we should do it in a practical and commonsense way that protects the health and safety and the civil rights of our communities.”
Watch the senator discuss cannabis policy and racial justice below:
Her own bill, meanwhile, “would ensure that marijuana is regulated to protect the health and the safety of youth, of consumers and of drivers,” she said. “We do this without replicating the racist enforcement patterns of our current drug policy.”
Neither piece of legislation has advanced in the Republican-controlled Senate so far. The House version of the MORE Act cleared the Judiciary Committee last year, however, and a committee chairman’s staffer told Marijuana Moment last month that there are plans in the works to get it to the floor for a vote in September.
During her speech, Smith also discussed a number of other proposals concerning policing reform and racial justice. She announced the introduction of another new bill that she says “would help, state, local and tribal governments reimagine policing in their communities by funding innovative projects and best practices that will transform how we deliver public safety and other social services.”
The senator’s marijuana legalization bill would federally deschedule cannabis, require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop rules that treat the substance in the same way as tobacco, create a national research institute to evaluate the risks and benefits of use, require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to impose quality control standards and mandate that the Department of Transportation study methods for detecting THC-impaired driving.
The descheduling provisions “are retroactive and shall apply to any offense committed, case pending, or conviction entered, and, in the case of a juvenile, any offense committed, case pending, or adjudication of juvenile delinquency entered, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of this Act,” the text of the bill states.
HHS would have to come up with a “national strategy to prevent youth use and abuse of cannabis, with specific attention to youth vaping of cannabis products.” Further, text of the legislation states that the department would be required to “regulate cannabis products in the same manner, and to the same extent,” as it does with tobacco.
That includes “applying all labeling and advertising requirements that apply to tobacco products under such Act to cannabis products.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection would be tasked with working with other agencies to develop policies on allowing marijuana imports and exports.
The legislation further contains racial justice provisions. For example, HHS would have to consult with “consult with civil rights stakeholders” to determine “whether cannabis abuse prevention strategies and policies are likely to have racially disparate impacts” within 100 days of the bill’s enactment.
The Department of Transportation would similarly have to determine whether its impaired driving prevention policy “is likely to contribute to racially disparate impacts in the enforcement of traffic safety laws.”
Agencies charged with establishing these regulations would have one year following the bill’s enactment to finalize those rules.
A federal age requirement for marijuana sales would be set at 21 under the measure.
The legislation was introduced one day after the House approved a spending bill amendment that would protect all state, territory and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention.
Smith’s focus on marijuana reform comes as lawmakers in her home state of Minnesota push for legalization, with a top legislator unveiling a comprehensive plan for legalizing cannabis for all adults 21 and older in May.
Further, it comes shortly after the Democratic National Committee rejected an amendment to adopt legalization as a 2020 party plank, with members opting instead to embrace more modest reforms. Advocates suspend that there may have been pressure for the panel not to formally embrace a policy change that is opposed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Oregon Officials Explain How Decriminalized Drugs And Legal Psilocybin Therapy Would Impact The State
Oregon officials finalized a series of analyses this week on separate ballot measures to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic use and decriminalize drugs while investing in substance misuse treatment.
The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission determined that the decriminalization initiative would reduce felony and misdemeanor convictions for drug possession by 91 percent, and that reduction would be “substantial for all racial groups, ranging from 82.9% for Asian Oregonians to approximately 94% for Native American and Black Oregonians.”
Overall, the policy change would result in a 95 percent drop in racial disparities for possession arrests, the panel projects.
“The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests.”
The conviction estimate was included in the panel’s draft analysis first released last month, but the final version was expanded to include the arrest data as well. The new document also notes that “disparities can exist at different stages of the criminal justice process, including inequities in police stops, jail bookings, bail, pretrial detention, prosecutorial decisions, and others”—a point that activists hoped the panel would include.
That said, the commission noted it “lacks sufficient or appropriate data in each of these areas and therefore cannot provide estimates for these other stages.”
The new report, published on Wednesday, cites research indicating that the resulting “drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others.”
The decriminalization proposal was the first ballot initiative in the state’s history to receive a report on the racial justice implications of its provisions under a little-utilized procedure where lawmakers can request such an analysis.
This information will be included in a voter pamphlet as a factual statement from the secretary of state’s office.
“Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more,” Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign, said in a press release.
Both the psilocybin therapy and drug decriminalization measures also received final explanatory statements and fiscal impact statements this week.
For the therapeutic psilocybin legalization initiative, the Financial Estimate Committee said that it projects the measure will have an impact of $5.4 million from the general fund during the two-year development period. After the program is established, it will cost $3.1 million annually, “which will be covered by the fees and tax funds for the administration and enforcement of the Act.”
The explanatory statement says the measure “directs the Oregon Health Authority to regulate the manufacture, delivery, purchase, and consumption of psilocybin, a psychoactive component found in certain mushrooms, at licensed psilocybin service centers” and that a “person would be allowed to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin only at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
It also describes an initial two-year development period during which officials will research and make recommendations on “the safety and efficacy of using psilocybin to treat mental health conditions,” after which time the new law will allow “a client who is at least 21 years of age to purchase, possess, consume, and experience the effects of psilocybin at a licensed psilocybin service center during a psilocybin administration session with a licensed psilocybin service facilitator.”
Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin initiative, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “satisfied with the explanatory statement and believe it captures the thoughtful approach we took that led to psilocybin therapy being on the ballot this November.”
“Specifically, we were happy to see the regulations and safeguards that are built into the measure highlighted in the explanatory statement,” he said. “We also believe that the fiscal committee saw and respected our approach to keep the psilocybin therapy program revenue neutral once up and running.”
The drug possession decriminalization measure is expected to cost $57 million annually, according to state officials, but it will be covered by marijuana tax revenue, which is “estimated at $61.1 million in 2019-21 and $182.4 million in 2021-23” and would therefore be “sufficient to meet this requirement.” Cannabis revenue to cities and counties would be reduced under the measure.
The reform would also save money through reduced drug enforcement. “These savings are estimated at $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23,” the analysis says. “This will reduce revenue transferred from the Department of Corrections for local government community corrections by $0.3 million in 2019-21 and $24.5 million in 2021-23. The savings are expected to increase beyond the 2021-23 biennium.”
The initiative “mandates the establishment of at least one addiction recovery center in each existing coordinated care organization service area in the state,” the separate explanatory statement says, and describes how they would be funded with marijuana tax revenue.
“The measure eliminates criminal penalties for possession of specified quantities of controlled substances by adults and juveniles,” it says. “Instead, possession of these specified quantities of controlled substances becomes a non-criminal Class E violation for which the maximum punishment is a $100 fine or completion of a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics has officially qualified for the November ballot in Washington, D.C.
Montana activists said last month that county officials have already certified that they collected enough signatures to place two marijuana legalization measure on the state ballot, though the secretary of state’s office has yet to make that official.
In Arizona, the organizers of a legalization effort turned in 420,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot last month.
Organizers in Nebraska last month submitted 182,000 signatures in an attempt to put a medical marijuana measure on November’s ballot.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced last month that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Read the full state analysis of the Oregon drug decriminalization and psilocybin therapy measures below:
Top White House Official Blasts Marijuana Banking Provisions In Democrats’ Coronavirus Bill
Vice President Mike Pence’s top staffer on Thursday joined the chorus of Republicans criticizing House Democrats for including marijuana banking provisions to the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief bill.
Marc Short, who is Pence’s chief of staff and previously served as director of legislative affairs for the White House, discussed the COVID-19 legislation during an interview with Fox Business, and he described the Democratic proposal as a “liberal wish list” with “all sorts of things totally unrelated to coronavirus.”
“In one instance they have provided guarantees for banking access for marijuana growers,” Short said. “That has absolutely nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He’s referring to language that was inserted from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect financial institutions that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
Numerous Republicans—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—have been critical of the provision, arguing that it is not germane to the issue at hand.
Democrats, for their part, have made the case that granting cannabis businesses with access to the banking system would mitigate the spread of the virus by allowing customers to use electronic payments rather than exchange cash. They also say it could provide an infusion of dollars into the financial system that’s especially needed amid the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) told Marijuana Moment in an interview this week that she agrees with her colleagues that the marijuana banking provision is relevant to COVID-19 bill.
“By continuing to disallow anyone associated with these industries that states have deemed legal is further perpetuating serious problems and uncertainty during a time when, frankly, we need as much certainty as we can get,” she said.
While the Senate did not include the banking language as part of their COVID-19 bill, there’s still House-passed standalone legislation that could be acted upon.
The SAFE Banking Act has been sitting in the Senate Banking Committee for months as lawmakers negotiate over the finer points of the proposal.
Last month, a bipartisan coalition of state treasurers sent a letter to congressional leaders, asking that they include marijuana banking protections in the next piece of coronavirus relief legislation.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of 34 state attorneys general similarly wrote to Congress to urge the passage of COVD-19 legislation containing cannabis banking provisions.