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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.)

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Montana Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Implementation Bill

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The legislation makes some changes to the voter-approved cannabis measure but is closer to the ballot initiative than some plans lawmakers floated this session.

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Daily Montanan

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) on Tuesday signed House Bill 701, landmark legislation that implements and regulates the recreational marijuana program that voters approved in a ballot initiative last year and funds a substance abuse prevention program that the new governor has championed since his first days in office.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, followed a long and bumpy path to the governor’s desk, emerging among a slew of other proposals in the back half of the session. Even on the 67th Legislature’s final day, the Senate considered an ultimately failed proposal to alter HB701’s carefully negotiated taxation and revenue allocation structure and significantly tighten medical card requirements.

Under HB701, retail sails of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older will begin in January of next year. The half of Montana counties that voted for I-190, the ballot initiative legalizing adult-use cannabis, will have recreational in their borders by default, while voters in the the other half of counties will have to take an affirmative action to bring recreational marijuana in their boundaries if so desired. Recreational pot will be taxed at 20 percent, while medical marijuana will retain a 5 percent tax. The bill also moves operation and regulation of the state’s marijuana program from the Department of Public Health and Human Services to the Department of Revenue.

And it creates a special drug court to handle the review and possible resentencing or expungement of past marijuana-related convictions, a key goal of criminal justice advocates for the marijuana program.

The new marijuana law also uses tax revenues from the sale of the product—which could reach tens of millions of dollars a year, depending on the estimate—to help finance the HEART Fund, a drug treatment program that would dole out state money to local organizations and non-profits to fill gaps in the continuum of substance abuse care and prevention services, Gianforte’s office said.

With marijuana revenues, federal Medicaid match dollars and an infusion of tobacco settlement funds, the governor’s office estimated that the HEART Fund—short for Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment—could invest $25 million a year in substance abuse treatment.

“From the start, I’ve been clear that we need to bring more resources to bear to combat the drug epidemic that’s devastating our communities,” Gianforte said in his statement. “Funding a full continuum of substance abuse prevention and treatment programs for communities, the HEART Fund will offer new supports to Montanans who want to get clean, sober, and healthy.”

How much to tax pot and what to do with the money formed the core of debate over HB701. I-190 laid out a plan for revenues from a 20 percent tax to fund veterans services, park and trail maintenance and the acquisition of conservation easements through Habitat Montana. But the initiative, which passed with a healthy 57 percent of the vote, was quickly challenged in court, as only the Legislature has the constitutional authority to appropriate state funds. The suit is still ongoing.

So lawmakers this session set about drafting plans to spend or save the money themselves. Some conservatives favored a plan to lower the tax on recreational pot, fearing that a 20 percent levy would drive consumers to the black market, and put revenues in an interest-bearing trust fund that could be used to defray negative effects of legalization further down the line. Democrats wanted to hew as close to I-190 as possible, arguing that anything else disregarded the will of the voters and the pro-public lands ethos that underlies much of Montana politics.

Initially, HB701 made minor investments in parks, trails and non-game wildlife, paid into the HEART Fund at a rate of $6 million a year and left the rest to the general fund. But regular agitation from conservation groups and a deal struck in the Senate restored part of I-190’s funding structure, albeit on a delayed schedule, and revived many of its other provisions, earning support from initiative backers and authors who had been hesitant to embrace any legislative changes to I-190 earlier in the session.

“Since January, we’ve been focused on implementing the will of Montana voters in a safe, responsible, and appropriately regulated manner. House Bill 701 accomplishes this,” Gianforte said in a press statement sent out after he signed the bill May 18.

This piece was first published by Daily Montanan.

Louisiana Marijuana Legalization Effort Stalls After House Rejects Complementary Tax Proposal

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Louisiana Marijuana Legalization Effort Stalls After House Rejects Complementary Tax Proposal

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An effort to legalize marijuana in Louisiana appeared to reach a dead end on Tuesday, with the House of Representatives rejecting a complementary measure to impose taxes on cannabis sales ahead of a scheduled vote on the broader proposal.

Advocates have been closely monitoring the legislature this session as numerous cannabis reform proposals move through the traditionally conservative state—including bills to decriminalize marijuana possession and legalize the smoking of cannabis flower by medical patients.

The recreational legalization bill from Rep. Richard Nelson (R) represented the most comprehensive piece of marijuana legislation to advance. But with the House voting against the related tax bill, it appears likely that the main measure would face a similar fate if the sponsor insisted on a floor vote. The legalization measure, along with another companion bill setting licensing fees for cannabis businesses, were scheduled for floor consideration on Tuesday but Nelson moved to have them set aside.

The overall plan would have allowed adults 21 and older to purchase and possess marijuana from licensed retailers. Possession of up to two and a half pounds of cannabis would have been lawful.

Under one version of the bill, regulators would have been tasked with creating a permit for adults to grow up to six plants for personal use, but Nelson was prepared to remove that provision with an amendment he filed in an effort to build support from colleagues. The sponsor also floated a change that would have delayed legalization’s taking effect until cannabis is federally rescheduled.

The complementary bill that would have levied a 15 percent sales tax on cannabis products, in addition to state and local taxes. It would also have divided tax revenue between the state general fund and the local local jurisdictions where sales take place. It lost in a vote of 47-48, while 70 votes were needed to meet the two-thirds threshold for passage of tax legislation.

The separate fee measure from Nelson would have established a $2,500 annual fee for cannabis business licenses and a $100 annual fee for a personal cultivation permit.

Legalization’s stalling comes on the heels of a new poll showing that constituents in some of the most firmly Republican districts in the state support the policy change.

This also comes after the governor of another traditionally conservative state, Alabama, signed a bill to legalize medical cannabis.


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.

The developments on the Louisiana legalization legislation and the connected bills comes as several other cannabis reform measures are advancing. Here’s a breakdown of where those pieces of legislation stand:

HB 652: Decriminalize possession of up to 14 grams of marijuana, making it punishable by a $100 fine without the threat of jail time. Status: The legislation cleared the House last week and has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

HB 391: Allow medical marijuana patients to access smokable, whole-flower cannabis products. Status: The bill passed the House and one Senate committee this month. It is now on the Senate floor.

HB 514: Impose taxes on flower medical marijuana products if they are legalized. Status: The measure was approved in the House last month and also advanced through the committee process in the Senate, where it now awaits a floor vote.

HB 243: Remove criminal penalties for marijuana if it is legalized. Status: This proposal cleared the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee last month and is awaiting scheduling for a House floor vote.

HB 709: Establish certain regulations for a marijuana market if legalized, including provisions meant to promote social equity in the industry. Status: The bill was approved on second reading in the House on Monday as a substitute for a prior measure that advanced out of committee.

HB 640: Align Louisiana’s hemp regulations with federal rules that were finalized and took effect in March. Status: The House approved the measure last week and the Senate Agriculture, Forestry, Aquaculture, and Rural Development Committee lightly amended and approved it on Tuesday.

HB 567: Repeal a current law that requires illicit cannabis sellers to purchase tax stamps for their products. Status: The bill was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last week and is scheduled for floor debate on Tuesday.

When it comes to broader legalization, while advocates generally expected resistance from Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the reform, he did say last month that he has “great interest” in the legalization proposal, and he pledged to take a serious look at its various provisions.

Last year, the legislature significantly expanded the state’s medical marijuana program by passing a bill that allows physicians to recommend cannabis to patients for any debilitating condition that they deem fit instead of from the limited list of maladies that’s used under current law.

Edwards signed the measure in June 2020 and it took effect weeks later.

Two other recent polls—including one personally commissioned by a top Republican lawmaker—have found that a majority of voters are in favor of legalizing cannabis for adult use.

Mississippi Voters Want To Impeach Justices Who Overturned Medical Marijuana, Poll Shows

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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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Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Marijuana Meeting With Governor’s Office As New Poll Shows Majority Support For Legalization

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Legislative leaders will meet with the office of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) on Tuesday to continue negotiating a plan to legalize marijuana in the state—a development that comes as a new poll shows majority support for the policy change among voters.

With the legislative session ending on June 9, there’s a sense of urgency to enact the reform, which has long been a goal of the Lamont administration and top lawmakers. They’ve held several meetings to reach an agreement about what a legal cannabis market should look like, but there are still some sticking points that need to be resolved.

House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said negotiations are currently centering on who would qualify as a social equity applicant. Getting that designation would come with benefits in the cannabis business licensing process.

“We’re working with the administration. We have a meeting lined up for this evening. We’ve certainly gotten some edits from the administration that we were able to consider,” he said during a press briefing on Tuesday.

“We’re really finalizing on getting down to the definition of an equity applicant. I think that’s been the primary goal for folks on both sides of the discussion,” he said. “We do have a definition that we’ll share with the administration so that we can move forward from there.”

Given the tight deadline legislators are facing—in addition to the progress being made in negotiations—House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) said earlier this month that the legislature would be open to taking up the issue in a special session to resolve differences between the legalization bills that have been put forward by lawmakers and Lamont.

The governor’s chief of staff said that administration officials have been “meeting with legislative negotiators,” and they’re “waiting for them to provide us a revised draft” of a reform bill. It appears that lawmakers are making some progress toward that goal with Rojas saying they will present the governor’s office with a new equity definition on Tuesday evening.

Advocates are pleased to see the high-level discussions reaching the point of nailing down what kind of cannabis business constitutes an equity applicant.

“Defining equity has always been at the heart of the legalization conversation and I’m encouraged that our legislative champions are laser focused on getting this right,” Jason Ortiz, the policy director for the pro-legalization advocacy group CURE CT and a member of a legalization working group assembled by Lamont that issued recommendations on social equity. “This is the hard part, but getting here is a strong sign we are close to final language and that’s incredibly exciting.”

According to a new poll, Connecticut voters are done waiting for legalization to happen.

Sixty-four percent of residents in the state favor legalizing cannabis for adult use, the survey from Sacred Heart University that was released on Tuesday found.

Further, 76 percent of respondents said that marijuana has the same or fewer effects compared to alcohol. And 62 percent said they favor expunging prior cannabis convictions.

They survey involved interviews with 1,000 residents from April 20-26. And the results are consistent with past polling on the subject.

A bill to legalize marijuana for adult use that the governor proposed as part of his budget cleared the Judiciary Committee last month after being amended by the panel. But if a legalization measure isn’t enacted this year, Lamont said earlier this month that he anticipates that the issue could go before voters.

“Marijuana is sort of interesting to me. When it goes to a vote of the people through some sort of a referendum, it passes overwhelmingly. When it goes through a legislature and a lot of telephone calls are made, it’s slim or doesn’t pass,” the governor said. “We’re trying to do it through the legislature. Folks are elected to make a decision, and we’ll see where it goes. If it doesn’t, we’ll probably end up in a referendum.”

Ritter similarly said last year that if the legislature isn’t able to pass a legalization bill, he will move to put a question on the state’s 2022 ballot that would leave the matter to voters.

A competing legalization measure from Rep. Robyn Porter (D), which is favored by many legalization advocates for its focus on social equity, was approved in the Labor and Public Employees Committee in March.

Lamont, who convened an informal work group in recent months to make recommendations on the policy change, initially described his legalization plan as a “comprehensive framework for the cultivation, manufacture, sale, possession, use, and taxation of cannabis that prioritizes public health, public safety, and social justice.”

But while advocates have strongly criticized the governor’s plan as inadequate when it comes to equity provisions, Ritter said in March that “optimism abounds” as lawmakers work to merge proposals into a final legalization bill.

Rojas also said that “in principle, equity is important to both the administration and the legislature, and we’re going to work through those details.”

To that end, the majority leader said that working groups have been formed in the Democratic caucuses of the legislature to go through the governor’s proposal and the committee-approved reform bill.

In February, a Lamont administration official stressed during a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee that Lamont’s proposal it is “not a final bill,” and they want activists “at the table” to further inform the legislation.

The legislature has considered legalization proposals on several occasions in recent years, including a bill that Democrats introduced last year on the governor’s behalf. Those bills stalled, however.

Lamont reiterated his support for legalizing marijuana during his annual State of the State address in January, stating that he would be working with the legislature to advance the reform this session.

Ritter said in November that legalization in the state is “inevitable.” He added later that month that “I think it’s got a 50–50 chance of passing [in 2021], and I think you should have a vote regardless.” The governor said in an interview earlier this year that he puts the odds of his legislation passing at “60-40 percent chance.”

The governor has compared the need for regional coordination on marijuana policy to the coronavirus response, stating that officials have “got to think regionally when it comes to how we deal with the pandemic—and I think we have to think regionally when it comes to marijuana, as well.”

He also said that legalization in Connecticut could potentially reduce the spread of COVID-19 by limiting out-of-state trips to purchase legal cannabis in neighboring states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Mississippi Voters Want To Impeach Justices Who Overturned Medical Marijuana, Poll Shows

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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