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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.

 

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 15-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

Leading Congressional Marijuana Opponent In Danger Of Losing Seat, Polls Find

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U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) is facing his first major congressional reelection challenge in over a decade, and his opponent, Democratic candidate Colin Allred, is hot on his trail, according to recent polling.

For marijuana reform advocates, it’s a race to follow.

Sessions, as chairman of the House Rules Committee, has systematically blocked votes on cannabis-related legislation by his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Measures on everything from expanding access to medical marijuana for veterans to protecting legal cannabis states from federal interference have been dead upon arrival. Even hemp is a no-go with Sessions at the helm of the powerful committee.

Not a single cannabis-related vote has been allowed on the House floor during the current Congress, thanks to Sessions.

The closest the GOP congressman has come to compromise on the issue in recent months seems to be his pledge to continue talks with a medical marijuana advocacy group. Members of the organization told Marijuana Moment earlier this month that the congressman was “very receptive” to their mission when they met—but Sessions has yet to commit to backing any specific legislation.

But in November, voters in Texas’s 32nd Congressional District will have an opportunity to elect a representative with starkly different attitude toward drug policy: Allred, a civil rights attorney and former NFL player, supports medical cannabis and decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana.

A new poll from The New York Times poll shows a surprisingly tight race.

The Times called more than 43,000 voters across District 32 over the past week to get a sense of voter sentiment heading into November, talking to 500 of them. The results of those calls showed 48 percent of respondents supporting Sessions to Allred’s 47 percent.

Via The New York Times.

Of course, 500 isn’t an especially large sample size and the margin of error is about five percentage points.

But another recent survey conducted by Public Policy Polling for a healthcare advocacy group showed Allred ahead of the anti-cannabis incumbent by five points (47-42 percent).

Accordingly, the race has been graded as a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report.

The apparent closeness of the contest is noteworthy. Fewer voters seem to have formed strong opinions about Allred, with almost 50 percent of respondents telling the Times they couldn’t say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the candidate. Sessions, a known quantity as a sitting elected official, had a higher favorable rating (42 percent) than Allred, but also a significantly higher unfavorable rating (44 percent).

Respondents in the Times survey were also asked to weigh in on the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX). Forty-nine percent of voters in Sessions’s district said they’d vote O’Rourke if the election was “being held today,” while 47 percent said they’d vote Cruz.

It’s hard to say how much each candidate’s position on cannabis will tilt the scales in November, but what is known is that a bipartisan majority of Texans side with Allred when it comes to marijuana reform. A 2017 survey found “83 percent of Texans support legalizing marijuana for some use,” for example.

Via the University of Texas/Texas Tribune.

More on Allred’s stance on marijuana policy.

Asked about his plans for veterans transitioning back to civilian life, who might be struggling with mental health issues, Allred said “[p]art of that care should be the legalization of medical marijuana and cannabis as a non-addictive alternative to opioids and to treat PTSD and other battlefield injuries.”

The candidate has also criticized Sessions for holding up cannabis legislation, writing it’s “unfortunate that Pete Sessions refuses to acknowledge that medical marijuana can help our veterans coming back from war who are struggling with PTSD and chronic pain.”

Marijuana In Texas: Where Ted Cruz And Beto O’Rourke Stand On Legalization

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Canadians Involved In Marijuana Industry Not Welcome In US, Feds Confirm

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As Canada inches closer to opening its retail marijuana market next month, U.S. border officials are officially laying out their policy of weeding out the country’s cannabis consumers as well as those who work or invest in the industry.

In a Friday press release, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) confirmed previous news reports and affirmed that border officials will continue to enforce U.S. federal law, which for decades has defined marijuana as having a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit.

“Canada’s legalization of marijuana will not change CBP’s enforcement of United States laws regarding controlled substances,” the statement reads.

But more than just stopping marijuana from crossing the border, the federal agency will also actively deny entry into the country by people who work in the legal cannabis industry.

“As marijuana continues to be a controlled substance under United States law, working in or facilitating the proliferation of the legal marijuana industry in U.S. states where it is deemed legal or Canada may affect admissibility to the U.S.,” reads the CBP statement.

Canada became the second nation in the world to legalize marijuana in June. Starting on October 17, Canadian adults will be able to purchase and consume cannabis legally.

Although 31 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. have legalized cannabis for medical use and nine states and D.C. allow recreational use—including Washington, Vermont and Maine, which sit along the Canadian border—CBP officials say that entering the country with marijuana, even into a legalized state, “may result in seizure, fines, and/or arrest and impact admissibility.”

CBP officials spoken about the anti-marijuana policy before, but with Friday’s press release it’s now officially in black and white.

In the eyes of the U.S. federal government, “we don’t recognize that as a legal business,” Todd Owen, executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Field Operations told Politico earlier this month.

The senior official also cautioned that travelers risk a “lifetime ban” if they lie about their past drug use. “Our officers are not going to be asking everyone whether they have used marijuana, but if other questions lead there—or if there is a smell coming from the car, they might ask,” he said.

Any traveler who admits to past use of illegal drugs, including marijuana, will not be allowed into the U.S. CBP will then keep a record of the traveler and prohibit them from returning, whether or not the individual has previously entered the country. If they wish to return, the traveler must apply for a waiver to lift the lifetime ban at a cost of $585, as reported by Politico.

In response, Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) demanded that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen clarify her department’s policy and how it would go about enforcing it.

In a draft letter obtained by Marijuana Moment this month, the congressman posed a list of questions including how, exactly, the Department of Homeland Security will “evaluate and determine that an authorized foreign national is associated with the cannabis industry.”

Lawmaker Presses Trump Official On Banning Canadians From US For Marijuana

Photo courtesy of Gerald L. Nino, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

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Idaho Gubernatorial Candidates Disagree On Marijuana Legalization

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Marijuana is an increasingly prominent issue in many political races this year.

Even in campaigns where cannabis is not a central concern, the candidates are often taking strong positions on legalization when asked about it.

Here’s a look at where the major party contenders in Idaho’s gubernatorial contest stand on ending marijuana prohibition and related reforms.

Democrat: Paulette Jordan

While Jordan, a former state legislator and tribal council member, has focused more on decriminalization and medical cannabis during her campaign, she does support full marijuana legalization.

Jordan has touted her work on a decriminalization bill in the legislature, saying “I realize it’s baby steps in this state. But the fact of the matter remains that 70 percent of our borders are surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana.”

She tweeted, but later deleted, “I look forward to decriminalizing Cannabis and leading the way for medicinal cannabis as an alternative medicine that is taxed and well regulated.”

During a Democratic primary debate, she said there’s “nothing wrong” with legalization.

In a Facebook Live interview with the Idaho Statesman (roughly 10 minutes into the video below), she spoke about children who benefit from cannabidiol (CBD) oil, saying that marijuana is “a natural medicine that mother earth has created” and that has “been here for thousands of years, as long as my ancestors have been here.”

Addressing broader recreational legalization, she said, “the numbers that have been very beneficial to other states when it comes down to resources for education.”

Republican: Brad Little

Currently the state’s lieutenant governor and a former state lawmaker, Little opposes legalization but does support limited CBD medical cannabis access.

“I support existing Idaho law and oppose the legalization of marijuana,” he said during a Republican primary debate, criticizing a legislative proposal to expand on the existing CBD pilot program established by current Gov. Butch Otter (R).

“We are expanding the current quality controlled CBD oil treatment study taking place where CBD oil is being administered to children with epilepsy or seizure disorders, and the results seem to be proving very successful. I support this pilot, and I want to ensure that we get all the data and know that this treatment works,” he said. “As for this session’s CBD legislation, I think it was far too broad and had too many unintended consequences.”

He previously argued that the state’s limited CBD oil program is “working” and advocated for restrictive restrictive regulations on CBD during another debate.

The Idaho Republican Party tweeted about Little’s opposition (and Jordan’s support for) “fully legalizing all marijuana.”

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