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.”
CBD Company’s Appeal Could Let Marijuana And Psychedelics Companies Trademark Businesses Pre-Legalization
As it stands, you can’t trademark a product that’s not currently legal under federal law—like marijuana or psychedelics. But a CBD beverage company is appealing that rule, and it could have wide-ranging implications for burgeoning industries surrounding potentially soon-to-be-legal substances.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) says that companies cannot secure trademarks for products that aren’t lawful for commerce, even if they’re simply submitting “intent to use” applications that could take years to process while a pending policy change works its way through Congress or federal agencies.
“While applicant may be anticipating that CBD-based beverages will be made lawful at the federal level within the time frame for filing an allegation of use, that anticipation does not make this application registrable,” USPTO wrote in explaining its decision to deny a registration to Joy Tea, which markets hemp-derived CBD drinks. “The lawfulness of the goods is determined at the time the application is filed and not what may or may not be lawful at the federal level years from now.”
Joy Tea is appealing the rejection with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
While hemp and its derivatives like CBD were legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, USPTO denied its trademark request because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently have regulations in place that allow for the lawful marketing of cannabinoids in food items or dietary supplements.
While the federal food regulator has said it’s working on rules to allow for the marketing of CBD-infused products, USPTO says that for now, “FDA intentions, public opinion in favor of legalization of cannabis, and anticipation of change in the current law have no bearing on the prosecution of a trademark application.”
But Larry Sandell, an intellectual property attorney at Mei & Mark LLP who is representing Joy Tea, told Marijuana Moment that it’s improper to deny his client a trademark registration in the meantime.
“The general idea as to why [companies submit intent to use applications]—outside the cannabis space—is if you’re marketing a new product, and you’re starting to lay the groundwork, it would be terrible if somebody could just swoop it up and beat you to the trademark office and steal it out from under you,” he said.
Traditional pharmaceutical companies that are interested in selling products that aren’t currently approved by FDA have this option—but CBD businesses are barred.
“There’s no real logical basis for the split,” Sandell said.
But USPTO said the comparison is “misleading because pharmaceuticals are not per se unlawful.”
Joy Tea “has not argued or demonstrated that it is seeking or has sought FDA approval for the sale of its CBD-based beverages,” the agency said. “Applicant’s goods are not merely ‘unapproved’ but are actually ‘unlawful.'”
To resolve the issue, Joy Tea, is seeking an appeal.
“At base, this Appeal seeks to overturn, or at least narrow, this per se rule,” the company’s filing states. “No statute or applicable regulation supports disqualifying an applicant’s bona fide intent that stems from a belief—especially an objectively reasonable belief—that its intended future commerce will be legal future commerce,”
It further argues that “market movement in cannabis-related stocks evinces that—notwithstanding the current law—many people anticipate changes in federal law toward cannabis legalization in the immediate future and have been willing to invest in this belief.”
If the appeal succeeds and companies are prospectively able to trademark products that aren’t currently legal under federal law, that would have a significant impact on businesses entering the space.
If it fails, however, that would mean that the status quote prevails, putting these companies “in a terrible spot,” Sandell said.
It would mean, for example, that a company could preempt another company that plans to sell a cannabis product by taking their business name and using it for a legal, unrelated purpose.
Should Joy Tea’s current effort fail, Sandell said they will appeal to a federal circuit court. They’re expecting a response to the initial briefing by mid-summer.
Read the text of the appeal on the CBD trademark below:
Photo by Kimzy Nanney.
Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Could ‘Absolutely’ Pass Full Legislature If GOP Senate Allows A Vote, Sponsor Says
A bill to legalize marijuana in Minnesota is set for a House floor vote this week, and the sponsor of the legislation is optimistic that it could pass the full legislature—if only the GOP-controlled Senate would just allow a vote on it.
This measure—filed by House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D), Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) and other lawmakers—has moved through a dozen committees since February. It would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 1.5 ounces of cannabis and cultivate up to eight plants, four of which could be mature.
Despite being advanced through 12 House panels, there have been lingering doubts about its prospects in the Senate. But Winkler said in an interview on Sunday that, if Republican leadership in the chamber give it a vote, “it absolutely could pass.”
“Support for legalizing cannabis for recreational or personal use, making sure that we have a safe, regulated marketplace, that we are expunging criminal records for people who’ve been unfairly targeted for law enforcement reasons for cannabis in the past, making sure that we’re creating a marketplace that reflects Minnesota’s values—all those things are our priorities in this bill, and they are priorities for Minnesotans of all political persuasions,” Winkler said.
Pressed on whether the legislation could advance through the Republican-led Senate if it advances through the House, the leader said it “absolutely could pass,” citing public polling on the issue and the fact that South Dakota voters approved a legalization initiative last year.
“It cuts across both parties,” Winkler said. “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t pass both houses if the vote can come up in the Senate.”
But one provision of the legalization bill that the leader isn’t willing to cede on concerns expungements for people with prior cannabis convictions.
Convictions for non-violent cannabis offenses push people into a cycle of poverty that cuts them off from housing and jobs.
That’s why expunging existing cannabis offenses is a non-negotiable piece of our legalization bill. This is an economic and criminal justice issue.
— Ryan Winkler (@_RyanWinkler) May 10, 2021
He said in a tweet on Monday that “expunging existing cannabis offenses is a non-negotiable piece of our legalization bill,” and that “is an economic and criminal justice issue.”
While Republican support remains an open question in either chamber, it is the case that the proposal has earned the support of several GOP members as its moved through an extensive committee process.
That’s despite the fact that Republicans have generally signaled that they’re more interested in revising the state’s existing medical cannabis program than enacting legalization of adult use.
But a GOP member of the House Taxes Committee, which approved the broader legalization bill last week, indicated that he felt an amendment he introduced and that was adopted could bolster Republican support.
That revision from Rep. Pat Garofolo (R) directs remaining cannabis revenue to a tax relief account after implementation costs are covered and substance misuse treatment and prevention programs are funded.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,100 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.
Before the Taxes Committee, the bill passed the Health Finance and Policy Committee, Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee, Education Finance Committee, State Government Finance and Elections Committee, Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee, Agriculture Finance and Policy Committee, Workforce and Business Development Finance and Policy Committee, Labor, Industry, Veterans and Military Affairs Finance and Policy Committee and Commerce Finance and Policy Committee.
The litany of committees the bill has gone through makes it perhaps the most thoroughly vetted legalization measure to move through a state legislature—and it means that a solid portion of the House has already had the chance to review, propose amendments to and vote on the legislation it as it advances to the floor, presumably increasing its chances of passage in the chamber.
The majority leader’s bill as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the legislation, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
On-site consumption and cannabis delivery services would be permitted under the bill. And unlike in many legal states, local municipalities would be banned from prohibiting marijuana businesses from operating in their areas.
Retail cannabis sales would be taxed at 10 percent. Part of that revenue would fund a grant program designed to promote economic development and community stability.
The bill calls for the establishment of a seven-person Cannabis Management Board, which would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing cannabis business licenses. It was amended in committee month to add members to that board who have a social justice background.
People living in low-income neighborhoods and military veterans who lost honorable status due to a cannabis-related offense would be considered social equity applicants eligible for priority licensing.
Cannabis retails sales would launch on December 31, 2022.
Gov. Tim Walz (D) is also in favor of ending marijuana prohibition, and in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
Walz did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Head Of Top Federal Drug Agency Says It’s Time To Consider Decriminalization
The head of a top federal drug agency is criticizing the ongoing policy of criminalizing people for drug use and is suggesting that the government should instead consider a policy of decriminalization.
Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), penned an essay for the journal Health Affairs that’s titled “Addiction Should Be Treated, Not Penalized.” It lays out the case against incarcerating people over low-level drug offenses and looking at the issue as a public health matter.
While it stops short of explicitly endorsing decriminalization, Volkow says that the current system leads to disproportionate enforcement against communities of color and can actually increase the risk of overdose deaths.
“Drug use continues to be penalized, despite the fact that punishment does not ameliorate substance use disorders or related problems,” she said. “Imprisonment, whether for drug or other offenses, actually leads to much higher risk of drug overdose upon release.”
“We have known for decades that addiction is a medical condition—a treatable brain disorder—not a character flaw or a form of social deviance,” Volkow continued in the essay, which was first published by Health Affairs late last month and republished on NIDA’s website on Friday. “Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting that position, drug addiction continues to be criminalized. The US must take a public health approach to drug addiction now, in the interest of both population well-being and health equity.”
In @Health_Affairs blog, Dr. Volkow makes the evidence-based case on how drug #criminalization disproportionately harms Black communities & exacerbates health disparities. A public health approach to #addiction is needed. https://t.co/6w1awINIRb pic.twitter.com/ty9GfrlWtg
— NIDAnews (@NIDAnews) April 27, 2021
The NIDA head pointed out how people of color have been “disproportionately harmed by decades of addressing drug use as a crime rather than as a matter of public health.” Citing disparities in how opioid criminalization has been enforced and laws punishing crack more harshly than powder cocaine, Volkow said these are examples of “racial discrimination that have long been associated with drug laws and their policing.”
What makes these admissions notable is the source from which they’re coming. While NIDA is known among advocates as a source of resistance to reforms such as ending marijuana prohibition, its director sides with them on the fundamental principle that substance misuse should not be criminalized.
“The damaging impacts of punishment for drug possession that disproportionately impact Black lives are wide ranging. Imprisonment leads to isolation, an exacerbating factor for drug misuse, addiction, and relapse,” the director said. “It also raises the risk of early death from a wide variety of causes.”
Volkow also said that beyond incarceration, merely being arrested for marijuana possession “can leave the individual with a criminal record that severely limits their future opportunities such as higher education and employment.” And that enforcement trend hurts black people more than white people despite comparable rates of consumption.
“This burden reinforces poverty by limiting upward mobility through impeded access to employment, housing, higher education, and eligibility to vote,” she said. “It also harms the health of the incarcerated, their non-incarcerated family members, and their communities.”
These statements ostensibly lend themselves to a harm reduction policy position in favor of decriminalization, but Volkow doesn’t specifically say that’s the route lawmakers should take. Instead, she says that research “is urgently needed to establish the effectiveness and impact of public health–based alternatives to criminalization, ranging from drug courts and other diversion programs to policies decriminalizing drug possession.”
To that end, NIDA is “redoubling its focus on vulnerabilities and progression of substance use and addiction in minority populations,” she said. “We are exploring research partnerships with state and local agencies and private health systems to develop ways to eliminate systemic barriers to addiction care.”
The agency is “also funding research on the effects of alternative models of regulating and decriminalizing drugs in parts of the world where such natural experiments are already occurring,” Volkow said, presumably referencing countries such as Portugal that have stopped criminalizing people over simple possession.
“People with substance use disorders need treatment, not punishment, and drug use disorders should be approached with a demand for high-quality care and with compassion for those affected,” she said. “With a will to achieve racial equity in delivering compassionate treatment and the ability to use science to guide us toward more equitable models of addressing addiction, I believe such a goal is achievable.”
While NIDA might not be widely considered a champion of progressive drug policy, its director has previously conceded that existing federal drug laws aren’t working.
In 2019, for example, she acknowledged that the Schedule I status of marijuana and other drugs makes it “very difficult” for researchers to study the benefits and risks of those substances.
“Indeed, the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder,” Volkow said during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “This is because [researchers] actually have to through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”
She also discussed the potential benefits and risks of cannabis at a congressional hearing last year.
NIDA is also one of the main agencies behind a new development in federally sanctioned marijuana research. After requesting public input last year on a standard THC unit for cannabis studies, it announced last week that it had reached a determination to set the standard at five milligrams of THC per dosage.