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V.A. Doesn’t Understand Marijuana Laws, So Veterans Lose Access

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Officials with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) mistakenly believe that federal law is blocking them from allowing government doctors to recommend medical marijuana or even to conduct research on cannabis, but that’s actually not the case.

“The V.A. is in the position of being required to follow the statutory law, and so as federal employees we are prohibited from recommending marijuana,” Dr. Laurence Meyer, the chief officer for specialty care at the V.A.’s Veterans Health Administration, said on Wednesday. “If Congress would change regulations, we would have more freedom both to investigate and to give therapy.”

He was responding to a question from Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) during an Appropriations subcommittee hearing on “V.A. Efforts to Prevent and Combat Opioid Overmedication.”

Schatz cited a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which found that opioid overdose death rates are roughly 25 percent lower in states with legal medical cannabis access than in states where marijuana is strictly prohibited. A number of other studies have reported similar results.

Despite Meyer’s contention that V.A. can’t do anything on marijuana until Congress acts, that’s not true, inasmuch as there is no overarching federal law that blocks the department from allowing its doctors to recommend medical cannabis in states where it is legal, even though the drug is still considered illegal under federal law.

The only thing standing in the way is V.A.’s own internal policy, something that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin can change at any time.

But Shulkin himself has repeatedly tried to pass the buck to Congress when asked about the issue.

During a White House briefing earlier this year, he said that state medical cannabis laws may be providing “some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful, and we’re interested in looking at that and learning from that.” But he added that “until time the federal law changes, we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”

In a separate interview, he said, “From the federal government point of view, right now we are prohibited by law from doing research on it or prescribing it… We are not going to be out there doing that research or prescribing these different medicinal preparations unless the law is changed.”

In another interview, he said that it is “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs or to prescribe medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal.” He added, “if a law change at the federal level is appropriate, that could happen.”

The distinction between recommendation and prescription is an important one.

No physician in the U.S. — government or private — can prescribe marijuana, because prescription is a federally-regulated process and cannabis currently falls under the Controlled Substances Act’s restrictive Schedule I, a category that is supposed to be reserved for drugs with a high potential for abuse and no medical value.

That’s why the 29 states with medical cannabis access allow doctors to simply recommend the drug, circumventing the prescription process.

Under a current internal V.A. administrative directive, the department’s policy is “to prohibit VA providers from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a Veteran’s participation in a State marijuana program.” The directive technically expired on January 31, 2016, but remains in force in practice until a new one is instituted to replace it.

Shulkin has the unilateral authority to rescind the ban and clear the way for V.A. doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans in states where it is legal.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment last month that V.A.’s position is “disturbing.”

“For years, the V.A. has been throwing up serious barriers to veterans’ safe access to cannabis,” he said. “Yet, it’s had no problem prescribing them highly addictive opioids that have killed thousands. It makes no sense. Our veterans deserve better. They deserve equal treatment from the V.A. doctors who know them best.”

In addition to refusing to let doctors issue recommendations, V.A. has blocked federally-approved researchers from recruiting veterans for research on medical cannabis.

One such study on marijuana’s effects on PTSD has been prevented from reaching veterans at the Phoenix, Arizona V.A. hospital.

“This study needs 50 more participants and the Phoenix V.A. is in the best possible position to assist by simply allowing principle investigators to brief [V.A.] medical staff on the progress of the study, and by allowing clinicians to reveal the existence of the study to potential participants,” the American Legion, which represents more than 2.4 million military veterans, wrote to Shulkin in September. “Your immediate attention in this important matter is greatly appreciated. We ask for your direct involvement to ensure this critical research is fully enabled.”

Shulkin hasn’t yet responded, but the group has been increasing pressure on the recommendation and research issues. This month the organization released a poll finding that 81 percent percent of veterans want marijuana to be a “federally-legal treatment.”

Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) said in an interview with Marijuana Moment this month that she’s “disappointed” in Shulkin for not taking initiative to remove V.A.’s internal ban on medical cannabis recommendations. And last month, a group of ten lawmakers wrote to the secretary asking him to direct the department to increase research on the drug’s potential benefits.

Despite the misunderstanding of federal law, Meyer and another V.A. official testifying at the Wednesday Senate hearing seemed to understand that the potential for cannabis has shown to help veterans warrants further investigation and application.

“I don’t think we can wait to have the perfect evidence for everything,” Meyer said. “If you have evidence that something is working, you don’t need to wait to figure our what it’s working — I’m talking in very general terms here — in order to employ it.”

Dr. Friedhelm Sandbrink, the V.A.’s acting national program director for pain management, testified that it is important to determine what’s behind the correlation between increased legal marijuana access and reduced opioid deaths in the study Schatz cited.

“For those states that have implemented cannabis laws and implemented the availability of cannabis for medical purposes…there has been about a 25 percent reduction of overdose deaths,” he said. “Obviously, that’s a very important finding. We need to understand what is truly providing this what seems to be a protectional reduction of overdose deaths.”

Schatz, who called the existing study “compelling,” pushed the V.A. officials to step up research.

“You need to do the academic and scientific inquiry to try to figure out really what’s going on here,” he said.

But that likely won’t happen until V.A. officials realize that federal law isn’t actually preventing it from participating in such research or increasing veterans’ access to cannabis.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Forces Special Operations Command.

 

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

Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (Organization citations are for identification only and do not constitute an endorsement or partnership.)

Politics

Trump Campaign Orders Mississippi Medical Marijuana Activists To Cease Using President’s Name

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President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign has issued a cease and desist order against a Mississippi medical marijuana legalization campaign, claiming “unauthorized and misleading representation” of the president’s position on the reform initiative in one of its mailers—even though he has on multiple occasions spoken favorably on camera about medical cannabis.

Michael Glassner, chief operating officer of Donald J. Trump for President Inc., sent a letter to Mississippians for Compassionate Care (MCC), demanding that they stop distributing campaign materials touting the president’s past remarks.

While the mailer and the envelope it’s being sent in don’t at any point state that Trump has specifically endorsed Initiative 65, they encourage voters to “join President Trump and 3 out of 4 Mississippi Republicans who support medical marijuana” and point out that he’s voiced “complete support for medical marijuana.”

It is indeed the case that the president has, on several occasions, stated that he’s in favor of medical cannabis reform.

For example, while he said in 2015 that Colorado has “a lot of problems going on right now” with its recreational marijuana program, medical cannabis “is another thing.”

“I think medical marijuana, 100 percent,” he said.

Beyond stating his personal support for medical cannabis, Trump has said multiple times that he personally knows people who have benefited from using it.

“I think medical should happen, right? Don’t we agree? I mean I think so,” he said at a 2015 rally in Nevada. “I know people that are very, very sick and for whatever reason, the marijuana really helps them.”

“I know people that have serious problems and they did that and it really does help them,” he said In a 2016 interview on Fox News.

But the president’s reelection campaign evidently takes issue with the state cannabis effort using his on-camera quotes.

“President Trump has never expressed support for Initiative 65, and his campaign demands that you immediately cease and desist all activities using the President’s name, image or likeness in support of the legalization of medical marijuana in Mississippi,” Glassner wrote in the October 12 letter, which was first reported by Y’all Politics.

“The President’s campaign strongly believes in and encourages your organization’s fundamental right to engage in speech on issues of public importance, but this is not about that,” he said. “You are misleadingly using the President’s name in support of your own agenda without authorization or justification.”

But MCC is defending the mailers, which also feature endorsements from multiple Republican legislators in the state.

“President Trump has clearly stated on multiple occasions that he supports medical marijuana. That is all that we’ve shared—the truth,” MCC Communications Director Jamie Grantham said in a press release. “The politicians and bureaucrats behind Mississippi Horizon clearly orchestrated this letter from the Trump campaign. It’s just the latest example of the lengths to which they will go to prevent any form of medical marijuana in Mississippi.”

“President Trump himself has said he supports medical marijuana and is letting the states decide,” she said. “Initiative 65 is the only plan on the ballot that will create an actual medical marijuana program in Mississippi.”

While Trump has made his views on medical cannabis clear—and he’s expressed support for a states’ right approach to marijuana policy—he’s also on several occasions released signing statements on spending legislation stipulating that he reserves the right to ignore a long-standing rider that prohibits the Justice Department from using its funds to interfere with state-legal medical marijuana programs.

He also proposed deleting the rider altogether in multiple annual budget proposals to Congress, though President Obama did the same thing when he was in office.

The Mississippi mailer neglected to acknowledge those nuances, however.

“For the last two years, he has signed legislation offered by Republican Senators to prevent his Department of Justice from prosecuting medical marijuana businesses in states that have legalized its use,” it states.

“The Trump campaign’s decision in this matter is a further indication that this administration is unwilling to either embrace or act upon marijuana policy reform,’ Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “For four years, this administration has been silent at best and hostile at worst when it comes to marijuana policy, and there is no indication that they would change going forward if given the opportunity.”

“At the end of the day, this is just bad politics,” he said.

A Quinnipiac poll found last year that 93 percent of Americans support medical marijuana, including 86 percent of Republicans, 96 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of independents—raising questions about why the president’s reelection campaign chose to take the proactive step of distancing their candidate from such an overwhelmingly popular issue that enjoys supermajority backing across partisan lines.

Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, favors legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing cannabis possession more broadly, expunging prior convictions, modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law and letting states set their own policies. That said, he helped craft some of the nation’s most infamously punitive anti-drug laws during his time in the Senate—a record that the Trump campaign has seized on.

“More than 81 percent of Mississippians agree with President Trump in supporting medical marijuana for people who are suffering,” Grantham said, referencing a poll released last month. “Voters see through the actions of politicians who failed to act on this issue and who are now trying to block this initiative. 65A lets politicians decide. More than 228,000 Mississippians signed petitions for Initiative 65 which lets doctors and patients decide.”

The medical cannabis reform campaign has faced a series of obstacles before and after qualifying for the state’s November ballot.

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, 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.

More recently, 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.

Last week, 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.”

If the campaign’s measure passes, it would allow patients with debilitating medical issues 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 allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana per 14-day period.

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.

Read the Trump campaign’s cease and desist letter below: 

Trump Cease and Desist To M… by Marijuana Moment

Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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New Jersey Voters Strongly Back Marijuana Legalization And Cannabis Pardons, New Poll Finds

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Support for a referendum to legalize marijuana in New Jersey remains strong, according to a new poll released on Tuesday. And what’s more, voters want Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to go a step further by pardoning people with low-level cannabis convictions.

The survey, which is the fourth and final from the law firm Brach Eichler LLC this election cycle, shows that 65 percent of New Jersey voters are in favor of the reform proposal that will appear on the state’s November ballot. Just 29 percent are opposed to the policy change and six percent remain undecided.

These results are statistically consistent with the prior three polls from the firm as well as one from Fairleigh Dickinson University, which similarly found roughly two to one support for the measure. A separate survey released last week by Stockton University showed three to one support for legalizing cannabis among New Jersey voters.

As has historically been the case, Democrats are most likely to back legalization (70 percent), followed by independents (62 percent) and Republicans (52 percent).

But beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, New Jersey voters are also strongly in favor of having the governor use his clemency powers for those previously convicted over low-level marijuana offenses. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said Murphy should grant those individuals pardons, compared to 21 percent who are against it and 11 percent who are unsure.

For the first time since the firm starting polling on cannabis issues this year, a majority of voters (51 percent) also said that prior marijuana records of all levels of convictions, rather than just simple possession, should be expunged.

“The Brach Eichler Cannabis Poll, which has consistently reported overwhelming support for legalizing cannabis, today again confirms that New Jersey voters support this long overdue change by a significant margin,” Charles Gormally, co-chair of the firm’s cannabis practice, said in a press release. “After election day it is imperative that our legislature move to create the most efficient, safe and regulated marketplace to capture the tri-state cannabis business.”

The survey, which involved interviews with 500 registered voters from October 5-13 and has a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, also asked about the policy of local control for the marijuana market. Forty-seven percent said that individual jurisdictions should be allowed to ban cannabis businesses from operating in their area, compared to 39 percent who are opposed to the proposal and 14 percent who are undecided.

“It is clear that home rule is a topic that needs to be more fully addressed,” Gormally said. “Cannabis businesses are going to need an immediate understanding of local politics and community issues before embarking on plans for certain parts of New Jersey.”

Five states have recreational or medical marijuana legalization on the ballot this election, and polling broadly indicates that the measures will be successful.

Two recent surveys of Arizona voters show growing majority support for an initiative to legalize adult-use cannabis.

Montana voters seem poised to approve a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives next month, according to a poll released last week.

In South Dakota, polling signals that voters will approve separate initiatives to allow both medical and recreational cannabis.

A survey of Mississippi voters that was released in September found that an activist-led measure to legalize medical marijuana “stands a strong chance of passage.”

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, putting legalization to voters as a referendum question was the result of the legislature’s failure to pass reform legislation last session.

Murphy, the governor, has been a vocal advocate for approving the measure.

He said during a virtual fundraiser with the pro-legalization NJ CAN 2020 earlier this month that the state “can’t fail” at enacting the policy change this round. A top lawmaker also spoke at the event and said an enabling and regulatory bill was being prepared in anticipation of a favorable vote, and that it could be voted on by the legislature as soon as the first week of November.

The governor also recently recorded a video ad that was released by the reform group, 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.

Murphy 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.”

Last month, Murphy also called on voters to support the proposal in an email blast that was circulated by the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

“Legalization would right those wrongs while also spurring massive economic development opportunities, job creation, and new tax revenue,” the governor wrote. “Now, we have the opportunity to get this done and finally legalize adult-use marijuana here in the Garden State, and I need your help to make it happen.”

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, one of two campaign committees working to pass the cannabis referendum, released a series of English- and Spanish-language video ads last week, after having published one prior ad. Meanwhile, campaign finance records compiled  show that legal marijuana supporters are out-raising opponents by a ratio of nearly 130:1.

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.

Marijuana Legalization In Texas Would Generate Billions In Tax Revenue, New Economic Analysis Shows

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Kamala Harris Touts ‘Commitment’ To Marijuana Decriminalization And Expungements Under Biden Administration

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Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris (D-CA) again pledged in a new interview that decriminalizing marijuana would be an administrative priority if she and Joe Biden are elected.

Speaking to The Grio on Saturday, the senator discussed the would-be Democratic administration’s criminal justice agenda, contrasting it with that of President Donald Trump. She reiterated the cannabis reform would be among their policy goals.

“We have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses,” Harris said. “When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits.”

Watch Harris discuss criminal justice and marijuana reform, starting around 12:00 into the video below: 

While reform advocates have appreciated the senator’s repeated calls for cannabis reform on the campaign trail, they’ve taken issue with her tendency to refer to the drug war in the past tense—as she did here by talking about the impact the policy “had”—as though those prosecutions and enforcement disparities haven’t persisted.

In fact, recently released FBI data shows that there were 1,558,862 drug-related arrests in the U.S. last year, about a third of which were for marijuana. That amounts to a new drug bust every 20 seconds on average.

There’s also some frustration that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization—a policy not supported by the former vice president despite its popularity among Democrats.

Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.

In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”

In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.

Top Senate Democrat Includes Marijuana Banking Protections In New Coronavirus Relief Bill

Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.

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