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.
Most Kansas City Government Workers Will No Longer Face Pre-Employment Marijuana Tests Following City Council Vote
Most government workers in Kansas City, Missouri will no longer face pre-employment drug tests for marijuana under an ordinance that the City Council approved on Thursday.
The measure, which was introduced by Mayor Quinton Lucas (D) in July, was passed by local lawmakers in an 11-2 vote.
“It shall be unlawful for the City of Kansas City to require a prospective employee to submit to testing for the presence of marijuana in the prospective employee’s system as a condition of employment,” the text of the ordinance states.
Lucas, who last year filed a since-enacted measure to remove all local criminal penalties for cannabis possession, celebrated the latest development.
Opportunities should not be foreclosed unnecessarily.
Glad to see passage of our law eliminating pre-employment screening for marijuana at Kansas City government for most positions.
One step of many in becoming a fairer city.
— Mayor Q (@QuintonLucasKC) September 23, 2021
“Opportunities should not be foreclosed unnecessarily. Glad to see passage of our law eliminating pre-employment screening for marijuana at Kansas City government for most positions,” he said. “One step of many in becoming a fairer city.”
There are some exceptions to the policy change. Law enforcement, workers who require a commercial driver’s license and those who are involved in the supervision of “children, medical patients, disabled or other vulnerable individuals” can still be screened for cannabis.
Last year, the mayor announced a pardon program for those with previous convictions for possession of marijuana or paraphernalia.
Drug testing for cannabis has become a hot topic of late since the Olympics suspension of U.S. runner Sha’Carri Richardson, with more people arguing that use of the plant shouldn’t lead to punishments, especially given the ongoing rise of the legalization movement. The World Anti-Doping Agency recent announced that it would review its marijuana policy for athletes next year.
The Biden administration has come under fire this year for terminating or otherwise punishing staffers who were honest about their past cannabis use as part of the background check process.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that nobody in the White House was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.” However, she’s consistently declined to speak to the extent to which staff have been suspended or placed in a remote work program because they were honest about their history with marijuana on a federal form that’s part of the background check process.
In June, a powerful congressional committee released a report that urges federal agencies to reconsider policies that result in the firing of employees who use marijuana legally in accordance with state law.
Separate standalone legislation has been previously introduced by Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) to provide protections for federal workers who consume cannabis in compliance with state law, but it never received a hearing or a vote and has not been refiled so far this Congress.
As of last year, New York City employers are no longer able to require pre-employment drug testing for marijuana as a part of the hiring process—though there are a series of exemptions to the policy. The City Council approved the ban in 2019, and it was enacted without Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) signature.
Statewide in Missouri, voters may see multiple marijuana initiatives on the state’s 2022 ballot, with a group filing an adult-use legalization proposal last month that could compete with separate reform measures that are already in the works.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.
Full-Page Washington Post Ad Calls For Marijuana Prisoner’s Freedom While Celebs Make Money In Industry
Supporters of a 26-year-old man who is currently incarcerated while awaiting sentencing for a federal marijuana charge took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post on Thursday, blasting the hypocrisy of his imprisonment while celebrities like Beyonce, Jay Z, Seth Rogen and Willie Nelson stand to profit off the legal cannabis industry.
Jonathan Wall faces up to 15 years in prison on charges that he and other conspired to traffic marijuana from California to Maryland over two years. His family says this is a flagrant miscarriage of justice that highlights the need for relief for Wall and for broader federal marijuana reform.
The ad has the headline, “Who will be the last person incarcerated for marijuana in the United States?”
“Cannabis corporations are in Maryland and 26 other states making billions in revenue growing, manufacturing and distributing pot,” it says. “Cannabis conglomerates wonderfully engaged in branding, licensing , product innovation, research and development.”
It notes that, just miles away from where Wall is being held, consumers can buy marijuana from major marijuana businesses like Curaleaf or Acreage Holdings, which counts former GOP House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) among its board members.
“But then you—along with the likes of Jay Z, Seth Rogen, and Willie Nelson—would be in violation of U.S. federal law and subject to incarceration,” the ad says. “26-year-old Jonathan Wall faces life in prison while Beyonce says that she’s starting a cannabis farm. This is not the way the law is supposed to work.”
“President Biden recently gave a speech about how 20 years in Afghanistan was too long and that our continued involvement there was a mistake. Well, what about more than 50 years of proven failure, 50 years of gross economic waste, 50 years of caging our own citizens, 50 years of asset forfeiture abuse, 50 years of enforcement disparity and evisceration of the constitutional rights of people of color. In a country where you can guy an assault rifle and fifth of whiskey, federal prohibition of cannabis has never been about more than fear, bias, race, stigmatization and control.”
This isn’t the first time that the Biden administration has faced demands to provide relief for people criminalized over marijuana.
Congressional lawmakers have also recently pushed President Joe Biden to grant clemency to nearly 20,000 people in the federal prison system—including those with drug convictions.
A group of more than 150 celebrities, athletes, politicians, law enforcement professionals and academics separately signed a letter that was delivered to Biden, asking him to issue a “full, complete and unconditional pardon” to all people with non-violent federal marijuana convictions.
While advocates are looking for more, the Biden administration is asking a fraction of people with drug convictions who were placed on home confinement amid the coronavirus pandemic to apply for the relief.
“It is time for our government to admit that it has made a mistake,” the new ad says.
House Officially Passes Defense Bill With Marijuana Banking Protections, But Key Senators May Block Path Ahead
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a large-scale defense spending bill that includes an amendment to shield banks that works with state-legal marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators. Now advocates and industry stakeholders are left wondering: what’s the fate of the reform in the Senate? And can it make it to the president’s desk?
New comments from Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)—who’s helping lead the charge to advance comprehensive marijuana legalization and who has been severely critical of efforts to enact banking reform first—signal that the path to pass the incremental policy change through the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be in jeopardy in the Senate. Other key senators have also expressed skepticism about the reform’s prospects through this process.
For supporters, things may have been more simple if the Senate had moved to include cannabis banking reform in its own version, but the text of NDAA released by Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday does not contain that language. That means the matter will need to be settled in a bicameral conference committee after the full Senate formally passes its bill. At that point, negotiators from both chambers will work to resolve differences between their separate proposals.
Already, there’s pushback from key senators to including the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act in the NDAA that’s ultimately sent to President Joe Biden. That’s not especially surprising considering that leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has insisted on passing comprehensive justice-focused marijuana legalization first rather than advance an incremental reform on banking. But recent statements do raise questions about the prospects of enacting the reform through the defense bill.
It’s not that the SAFE Banking Act is partisan or especially controversial on its face; it’s a matter of legislative priorities for certain senators and a question of germaneness in NDAA. As of Tuesday, when the reform amendment was officially attached to the House version of the bill, it has now passed five times in the chamber, usually along largely bipartisan lines.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), chief sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, spoke with Marijuana Moment about the process moving forward in a phone interview on Wednesday. He was optimistic about the measure’s prospects with NDAA as the vehicle, though he conceded that he hadn’t spoken with Schumer or other key senators who are actively finalizing legalization legislation that they hope to see move first.
“I think the fifth time is the charm,” he said. “I mean, obviously, we still have to do some work to make sure that it remains part of the NDAA as the House and the Senate go to conference. So we still have work to do with the Senate to make sure that it remains part of it. But I think that it will.”
“I mean, the fact that it deals with cartels and national security, on top of the need for the public safety piece of this thing, I think that we’ll be able to convince the conference committee and the conferees generally to keep it in,” he said. “But we still have work to do.”
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 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.
Some advocates have expressed support for enacting the achievable banking policy change while working to build support for more comprehensive reform.
“Enactment of the SAFE Banking Act would improve public safety and business efficiency in the 36 states that currently permit some form of retail marijuana sales,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “The Senate should ensure this provision remains in the final version of this funding package and enact it swiftly.”
“The SAFE Banking Act is only the first step toward making sure that state-legal marijuana markets operate safely and efficiently,” he said. “The sad reality is that those who own or patronize these currently unbanked businesses would still be recognized as criminals in the eyes of the federal government and by federal law. This situation can only be rectified by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances.”
Schumer and certain other senators, meanwhile, have insisted the banking issue should be tackled by holistically ending marijuana prohibition. They argue that it is inappropriate to pass what is seen as an industry-focused reform that helps businesses and investors while leaving unaddressed the harms of decades of racially disparate prohibition enforcement that should be addressed with equity-focused legalization.
Booker, who is helping Schumer alongside Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) to produce a final legalization bill has said he would proactively work to block any senators who attempt to get marijuana banking reform passed before enacting social justice-focused legalization legislation.
And Booker told Politico on Wednesday that cannabis banking is “something that should not be included” in NDAA.
Senate likes to send NDAA amendments to a vote by unanimous consent. If one senator raises an objection to an NDAA Amendment, it can kill or stall it. Booker wouldn’t discuss his plans but said has “a lot of options as an individual senator” should the amendment be proposed.
— Natalie Fertig (@natsfert) September 22, 2021
“It undermines the ability to get comprehensive marijuana reform and the kind of things that are harder to get done like expungement of people’s records,” he said, echoing a point that Schumer made in an interview with Marijuana Moment in April. And a spokesperson for the majority leader affirmed that his position has not changed in light of the House development.
Should a senator propose a floor amendment to the chamber’s version of the defense bill to incorporate SAFE Banking, Booker left open the possibility of standing in its way.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), sponsor of the standalone Senate version of the SAFE Banking Act, also declined to say whether he would push to attach the reform to NDAA and told Politico he’d “love to see if we can even do the more comprehensive [reform]—that’d be even better.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI), meanwhile, told Roll Call that the issue hasn’t been discussed by members of his panel. And bipartisan supporters of the reform—including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rand Paul (R-KY)—told the outlet they weren’t certain that the Senate would pursue marijuana banking through NDAA.
Schatz also said that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “doesn’t like” the marijuana banking proposal, and so “he’s going to have to consult with the Republicans in his conference who are in favor of this reform, but so far he’s been blocking it.”
Based on these comments, it seems increasingly clear that the effort to enact SAFE Banking through the must-pass defense bill faces a tough road ahead. And despite bipartisan support for the proposal on its own, it’s an open question as to whether the negotiators in committees of jurisdiction will be able to reach a consensus.
At an initial meeting of the House Rules Committee about NDAA on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA), who is managing the bill for the chamber, acknowledged that while some members might consider certain amendments “superfluous” to defense spending matters, the annual legislation has been used as a vehicle to advance non-germane legislation in the past. He added, though, that doing so has historically required the issues at hand to have broad bipartisan support in order to survive the House-Senate conference committee process.
He didn’t specifically cite the cannabis banking proposal, but Perlmutter himself said earlier in the hearing that “whether something is superfluous is always in the eyes of the beholder,” signaling that he feels his measure’s germaneness in this context is up for interpretation.
Smith said that “whatever superfluous items the Rules Committee decides to put in order and get attached to this bill, we go to conference, and in conference, we work in a bipartisan fashion.”
But beyond Smith and Reed, it will also be up to leading members of key committees that handle banking issues to decide whether the measure gets a ride to the president’s desk in NDAA.
“We’re not going to pull one over on anybody here. We’re going to have to work with committees of jurisdiction—not just the chairs, but the ranking members as well—to come to some agreement on those before we go forward,” he said. “So if you see an item that you consider to be superfluous being added to the bill, don’t freak out.”
The chair’s comments about needing support from leaders of committees of jurisdiction raise questions about whether the amendment stands a chance in conference with the Senate following House approval. Not only did House Financial Services Committee Ranking Member Patrick McHenry (R-NC) vote against the standalone SAFE Banking Act this year and in 2019, but on the Senate side, even Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has been generally unenthusiastic about advancing the reform.
On the flip side, House Finance Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) is a supporter of the banking reform and brought it through her panel last Congress. Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Pat Toomey (R-PA), for his part, has previously voiced support for advancing the SAFE Banking Act.
Perlmutter has said that he appreciates that Senate leadership is pushing for a more comprehensive end to federal marijuana prohibition—and he agrees with Booker that promoting social equity is an important objective—but he feels the SAFE Banking Act is urgently needed to address public safety issues resulting from the industry’s lack of access to traditional financial institutions.
Some of the strongest proponents for broad reform like Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) voted in favor of the SAFE Banking Act in April despite the body yet having taken up a legalization measure this session.