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.
New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill
New Jersey Assembly and Senate committees voted in favor of companion bills that would legalize marijuana and provide for the expungement of prior cannabis convictions on Monday.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 6-1, with two abstentions, to advance the bill, which was amended at the last minute to broaden expungement provisions and revise the tax structure of a legal cannabis system.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved its version of the legalization legislation in a 7-4 vote, with one abstention.
“When I think of [the bill], I think of two words: opportunity and hope,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D), who sponsored the legislation, said at the hearing.
— NJAssemblyDemocrats (@njassemblydems) March 18, 2019
“There have been far too many people, especially those from Black and Hispanic communities, who have been negatively impacted by the criminalization of cannabis,” she added in a press release. “It is time we listen to the will of the majority of New Jerseyans and take a common-sense approach to regulation of cannabis. This bill is a huge first step.”
The Assembly and Senate committees also approved separate companion bills to revise requirements to qualify for medical cannabis in the state. And another piece of legislation revising the procedure for expunging various criminal records also passed both committees.
“This legislation is critically important as we move toward legalization of adult-use cannabis in New Jersey,” Assembly member Jamel Holley (D), who sponsored the expungement bill, said in a press release. “Without this bill, many residents would continue to be affected by the criminalization of small amounts marijuana as a result of prior convictions long after the laws change.”
“Broader regulation around expungement will give residents the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate, enabling them to gain employment and seize the opportunities life presents them,” Holley said.
The committee wins come one week after Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leaders in both chambers announced that they’d reached an agreement on legalization legislation following months of contentious negotiations. Conflicting stances on certain aspects of regulations—namely the tax rate—were resolved, but the last-minute amendments caused hours-long delays in both committee hearings on Monday.
The governor also included legalization revenue in his budget proposal earlier this month, projecting $60 million in resulting tax monies for the 2020 fiscal year.
Murphy worked the phones throughout the day to rally support for the legislation, whose ultimate fate remains murky on the Senate floor, where the final showdown could come next week.
With committees in the NJ senate and assembly set to debate marijuana today, @GovMurphy has called "dozens of lawmakers and activists" today to push them on the issue
— Nick Corasaniti (@NYTnickc) March 18, 2019
“There’s no question it’s going to take a village on this one,” the governor said. “I am all in on this. We have to get this done.”
“We’re going to have to put everything into this. There is only one state in America that has done this legislatively. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of this. We’re not only expunging and undoing a whole lot of social injustices but creating a new industry. This is not an easy lift.”
While the Assembly committee approved the bill first, it was less clear whether the Senate committee would push the bill forward. In the run-up to the vote, Sen. Kip Bateman (R) complained that the committee hadn’t seen the final version of the bill and said he would be voting “no.”
Legalizing #marijuana would have an enormous impact on all of our communities. Asking us to form an opinion without seeing the full details of the bill is an incredibly irresponsible way to govern. https://t.co/S13xYhukhk
— Senator Kip Bateman (@KipBateman) March 18, 2019
“Legalizing marijuana would have an enormous impact on all of our communities. Asking us to form an opinion without seeing the full details of the bill is an incredibly irresponsible way to govern,” Bateman said.
Sen. Michael Doherty (R) also voiced his opposition to the legislation on Monday, calling the bill “a deal with the devil that sacrifices children and communities for short-term political gain.”
I'm voting "no" on marijuana legalization today in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The proposal is a deal with the devil that sacrifices children and communities for short-term political gain. https://t.co/vODT0Nq1B7
— Senator Mike Doherty (@mikedohertynj) March 18, 2019
Before the legalization bill was formally debated by the Assembly panel, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D) was given an opportunity to speak. He’s one of several New Jersey mayors who demanded that legalization legislation include a provision to automatically expunge the records of people with prior cannabis conviction, or else their respective municipalities wouldn’t allow marijuana businesses.
Baraka said that he wasn’t going to voice his opinion on the bill one way or the other, but simply wanted to reiterate his position on expungements.
"There should be no onus put on the individuals at all to go through any process to get this done," Baraka says of bill's expungement component, which requires person to apply for expungement for weed criminal offenses
— Daniel Munoz (@DanielMunoz100) March 18, 2019
“If we are going to legalize marijuana in the state of New Jersey, then we should remedy all of the folks who have been victimized by a war on drugs,” he said. “We believe that the onus should not be put on the individual but in fact should be put on the state itself.”
Murphy said that a “virtual expungement” process was achievable, and that did make it into the amended legislation, but he argued that automatic expungements “is functionally not possible.”
The legislation would allow adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase certain amounts of cannabis.
A five-member commission would be responsible for studying the effects of legalization and ensuring social equity in the marijuana industry. It would also be charged with approving licenses for cannabis cultivators, processors, wholesalers and retailers.
Marijuana deliveries and social consumption sites would be allowed, but home cultivation would be prohibited.
“Today’s votes are an important step toward legalizing adult-use marijuana in New Jersey. Although this bill is not perfect, we greatly appreciate the changes that the sponsors of the legislation have made based on the recommendations of advocates,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “While we are encouraged by the inclusion of provisions that our coalition has advocated for – such as expanded expungement – to better address fairness and equity, we are disappointed that there is no provision that allocates tax revenue generated by marijuana sales back to the communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition.”
New Jersey lawmakers previously approved a legalization bill during a joint session of Senate and Assembly committees last year, but the legislation in its original form did not advance to full floor votes in light of the ongoing negotiations between Murphy and Assembly and Senate leaders.
This story has been updated to reflect the Senate committee’s votes.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Pennsylvania Senators Release Details On Marijuana Legalization Bill
Details of a soon-to-be introduced bill that would legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania were released on Monday.
The legislation, which is being sponsored by Sens. Daylin Leach (D) and Sharif Street (D), places an emphasis on not only legalizing cannabis for adult use but also implementing a variety of social equity and small business-focused provisions, according to an outline of the proposal.
Under the heading “Innovation,” the document details how the state’s medical cannabis seed-to-sale tracking system would be eliminated, home delivery and public consumption sites would be permitted and universities would be allowed to grow and process cannabis as part of classes on the marijuana industry.
Home cultivation of up to six cannabis plants per household would also be allowed.
While the tax rate for retail marijuana sales is not specified in the outline, and the formal legislative language has not yet been filed, the goal will be to set a rate that “balances the need to undermine any illegal market and the needs to both pay for regulation of the industry and invest in those harmed by prohibition.” Most of the revenue from those taxes will go toward funding public education programs.
“We’ve had a cruel, irrational and expensive policy on cannabis for more than 80 years,” Leach said in a press release. “Prohibition has destroyed countless lives and has cost our taxpayers millions of dollars. It’s time we walk into the bright sunshine of enlightenment and stop arresting our kids and funding violent drug cartels.”
“This will be a tough battle, but so was passing medical marijuana. We did that, and we will do this. The stakes are too high for us to fail.”
It's official. After months of work, Senator Street and I have dropped our Adult-Use Cannabis co-sponsorship memo. If you'd like to see what's in it, you can look here. Now, we need everyone's help getting it passed! #CannabisCommunity #CannabisNews https://t.co/D5m5uJjGFK
— Daylin Leach (@daylinleach) March 18, 2019
On the business side of things, there wouldn’t be a cap on the number of marijuana business licenses that could be approved. Micro licenses for cannabis cultivation would be available in a three-tier system, which is meant to help people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war participate in the legal industry.
According to a cosponsorship memo, the legislation would create a “statewide cannabis business incubator that provides free training to Pennsylvanians who want to learn how to start and run a cannabis business.” People who’ve been harmed by prohibition and complete the incubator program would also have access to state grants and low-interest capital loans.
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Restorative Justice must be a part of any effort to legalize the use of cannabis anywhere. An end to the prohibition of cannabis in Pennsylvania is overdue. The economic imperatives for our commonwealth are too great as is our moral mandate to correct the damage that disparate enforcement of our Marijuana Laws has done throughout numerous communities in Philadelphia and across the commonwealth. Join me in passing Senate Bill 350. Visit www.senatorsharifstreet.com/sb350 to learn more about this historic legislation. #Letsgrowpa #legalizepa
“An end to the prohibition of cannabis is overdue,” Street said. “It is time for us to join the emerging cannabis economy with the legalization of the Adult Use of Cannabis in PA., which should not be a crime when responsibly used by adults nor mandate medical oversight.”
“The economic imperatives are too great. We also have a moral mandate to correct the damage that disparate enforcement of our Marijuana Laws has done and is still doing to communities across the commonwealth.”
An end to the prohibition of cannabis in PA is overdue, the economic imperatives equal the moral mandate to correct damage that disparate enforcement of Marijuana laws has done throughout numerous communities.
Visit https://t.co/vYCHYGmIXK #legalizepa #letsgrowpa #CannabisNews pic.twitter.com/ClzHBen5Ou
— Sen. Sharif Street (@SenSharifStreet) March 18, 2019
A separate bill to legalize marijuana in the state was introduced in the House last month. It currently has 27 cosponsors. It remains to be seen whether such legislation has enough support to pass in either Republican-controlled chamber of the legislature.
That said, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) recently shifted from saying the state is not ready for legalization to arguing that “it is time for Pennsylvania to take a serious and honest look at recreational marijuana.”
In the meantime, Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman (D), who is vocally supportive of legalization and was endorsed by NORML in his election bid last year, is in the process of visiting all of the state’s 67 counties as part of a listening tour that’s meant to collect public input on marijuana reform.
.@JohnFetterman wants to know what every Pennsylvanian thinks about legalizing recreational marijuana. That's why he's going on a listening tour to all 67 PA counties. Stay tuned for dates and details on how to submit your thoughts. pic.twitter.com/buqOwi4B2F
— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) January 24, 2019
“Cannabis prohibition was built on lies and racism and has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians suffering criminal convictions merely because they chose a plant instead of an alcoholic beverage,” Pittsburgh NORML executive director Patrick Nightingale said in the press release. “Adult-use reform will save almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians from arrest and prosecution annually. Reform will also help affected Pennsylvanians expunge cannabis-related offenses from their record.”
“We are confident that an open and honest conversation about the risks and rewards of adult-use reform will help those critical of legalization to understand that it can be done responsibly and in a manner that protects our youth and our motorists,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Trump Budget Proposes Loosening DC Marijuana Legalization Restrictions
A budget request released by the White House on Monday proposes scaling back restrictive language that has prevented the city of Washington, D.C. from spending its own money to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.
While District of Columbia voters approved a ballot measure in 2014 that makes it legal to possess and grow small amounts of cannabis, there is no mechanism by which consumers can legally buy marijuana in the nation’s capital (outside of medical cannabis dispensaries that only serve registered patients). That’s because although D.C. councilmembers and Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) would like to add in a legal sales component, longstanding congressional appropriations riders have blocked them from doing so.
In 2017, Congress tightened up the ban even further, taking away a potential loophole that city leaders had considered using to support a commercial legalization system.
But President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request asks Congress to revert to an earlier, less-restrictive version of the language that leaves the workaround on the table as an option.
The relevant section of the new document reads:
“SEC. 809. (a) None of the Federal funds contained in this Act may be used to enact or carry out any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative.
“(b) None of the funds contained in this Act may be used to enact any law, rule, or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801 et seq.) or any tetrahydrocannabinols derivative for recreational purposes.”
Two years ago, Congress changed that second subsection to instead bar use of funds “available for obligation or expenditure by the District of Columbia government under any authority” to lower penalties for cannabis.
The reason that matters is because under the “none of the funds contained in this Act” version, the city would still be able to use separate contingency reserve funds to pay for legalization even while monies contained in the annual appropriations legislation would be restricted.
It’s unclear if White House officials consciously made the change to the earlier, less-restrictive version or if staffers inadvertently did so by simply copying and pasting language from prior budgets. Trump’s FY19 request made the same proposed change, but Congress, through a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus appropriations legislation, has extended the more expansive “under any authority” language through at least this September.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will soon begin crafting their own spending bills for FY20, and legalization advocates expect that the new House Democratic majority will propose removing all restrictions on D.C.’s ability to spend its own money on cannabis policy changes and implementation.
Trump’s new budget request also proposes cutting funding for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy—commonly referred to as the drug czar’s office—by more than 93 percent by moving its key projects, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas and Drug-Free Communities programs, to the Department of Justice and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, respectively.
Trump’s FY2019 request made a similar request, but it was rejected by Congress.
The president’s new budget document also proposes continuing a congressionally approved provision that prevents the federal government from interfering with state industrial hemp research programs:
“SEC. 711. None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be used—
“(1) in contravention of section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (7 U.S.C. 5940); or
“(2) to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp that is grown or cultivated in accordance with subsection section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014, within or outside the State in which the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated.”
But it does not contain a current rider that protects state medical cannabis laws from Justice Department interference. Trump’s previous annual budget also did not include it. President Obama, following the measure’s initial enactment in 2014, requested its deletion in his subsequent budgets, but Congress has continued to extend it through at least the current fiscal year.
Photo courtesy of YouTube/The White House.