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VA Admits It “Can Look At Marijuana As An Option For Treating Veterans”

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Despite repeated claims to the contrary, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is now admitting that it “can look at marijuana as an option for treating Veterans.”

The stance, which comes in the form of new content uploaded to a VA webpage last week, contrasts with a letter that Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin sent to members of Congress in December, less than two months ago.

“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects,” he claimed at the time.

There have been no changes to federal cannabis laws in the interim.

The VA Office of Research & Development’s webpage on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) now says that earlier research on medical cannabis “found limited evidence that marijuana use might alleviate neuropathic pain in some patients, and that it might reduce spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, but found insufficient evidence to assess the effects of marijuana on PTSD.”

“VA is not currently able to prescribe medical marijuana to Veterans,” it continues, “but can look at marijuana as an option for treating Veterans.”

A cached previous version of the same page doesn’t mention marijuana at all.

The update to the webpage comes as Shulkin and the department are under increasing pressure on medical cannabis and completely unrelated issues.

A group of members of Congress are pushing the VA to allow its physicians to recommend medical cannabis, or at least to refer veterans to studies on the drug’s potential.

And a VA inspector general’s report released last week found that Shulkin made “serious derelictions” that resulted in improper use of taxpayer money to cover portions of an overseas trip he and his wife took to Denmark and the UK last year.

The report, which included portions of Shulkin’s travel agenda, happened to reveal that on July 19 he met with British officials to discuss medical cannabis as part of the trip.

Under an internal VA administrative directive, the department’s policy is that its “providers are prohibited from recommending, making referrals to or completing paperwork for Veteran participation in State marijuana programs.”

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

During a White House briefing last year, for example, 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.”

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.

Shulkin has the unilateral authority to rescind the internal ban and clear the way for VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans in states where it is legal, but he has repeatedly claimed that federal law — without citing a particular statute — blocks him from doing so.

The secretary’s unwillingness to move on marijuana goes beyond just letting doctors who work for him recommend it. He has also thus far refused to help lift institutional roadblocks preventing the department from participating in scientific research on cannabis’s uses.

In an interview last year, he said that it is “not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs.”

That position has led to recruitment issues for researchers conducting trials. For example, one such study on marijuana’s effects on PTSD has been prevented from reaching veterans at the Phoenix, Arizona VA 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 [VA] 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.”

And John Hudak, a researcher with the Brookings Institution said that despite Shulkin’s claims, “doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements.”

In December, VA issued an updated policy offers physicians greater encouragement to discuss cannabis with their patients.

The new directive urges government doctors to “discuss with the Veteran marijuana use, due to its clinical relevance to patient care, and discuss marijuana use with any Veterans requesting information about marijuana.”

But it maintains the longstanding departmental ban on physician recommendations.

V.A. Issues New Medical Marijuana Policy For Military Veterans

The new website language, however, and the revelation that Shulkin discussed the issue on his overseas trip, shows that VA’s opposition to cannabis is not necessarily set in stone, at least when it comes to research, though the implications aren’t immediately clear.

“No other arguments have worked in the past so this may be a breakthrough,” Sue Sisley, the researcher running the Arizona PTSD trial, told Marijuana Moment in an interview, referring to the webpage update. “VA can definitely be more helpful if they wanted to. There is nothing blocking them.”

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 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

Governor Signs Bill Legalizing Medical Marijuana In The U.S. Virgin Islands

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Medical cannabis was legalized in another U.S. territory on Saturday after the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands signed a long-awaited bill into law.

“I have approved the Virgin Islands Medicinal Cannabis Care Act because it is a step in the right direction toward assisting Virgin Islanders suffering from autoimmune and other debilitating medical conditions,” newly sworn-in Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. (D) said in a press release.

The Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act allows qualified patients to obtain, possess and consume marijuana for therapeutic purposes. It also establishes legal dispensaries and facilities to cultivate, test and manufacture cannabis products.

“After such a prolonged beating, I don’t know how to feel, except relieved for the people who will finally have access to healthy, effective, and affordable medicinal cannabis,” Senator Terrence ‘Positive’ Nelson, who for several legislative sessions in a row has sponsored medical cannabis bills that were ultimately defeated, said in a text message to Marijuana Moment.

“I feel redeemed and excited that the effort went from ‘laughable’ to law!”

Photo courtesy of Gov. Albert Bryan’s office.

Patients suffering from a list of serious medical conditions including cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and chronic pain will be able to receive a recommendation for medical marijuana from a licensed medical practitioner. Qualifying residents can possess up to four ounces of cannabis at a time and possession for non-residents will be capped at three ounces.

The legislation was approved by lawmakers last month.

In an interview with The St. Thomas Source last year, Bryan said he supports legalizing medical cannabis “based on the proven health benefits in the relief of pain and treatment of symptoms for many serious ailments including cancer.”

“I believe a properly regulated medicinal cannabis industry can provide relief to those seeking alternatives to conventional medicine and can also be an economic driver attracting new revenues for the Virgin Islands,” he said.

Revenue from the territory’s medical cannabis program will be used to fund drug rehabilitation, tourism projects, agriculture investments, work training and infrastructure.

While reform efforts in mainland U.S. have been receiving significant attention, advocates are also scoring wins in various U.S. territories. For example, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands fully legalized cannabis last year, before even implementing a medical cannabis system.

“This legislation also gives effect to a Virgin Islands community-wide Referendum held in 2014 that approved the introduction of the medical-use sale of cannabis products by a majority of the voters,” Bryan said. “Since the Referendum, it is clear that marijuana-use policy in the United States has been changing rapidly in favor of medicinal and recreational use and will continue, even potentially on the federal level.”

The governor also suggested that the new medical cannabis policy may be tweaked going forward.

“The Legislature recognized that the Bill, as passed, is not perfect and needs more refinement and amendment and provides for an implementation period that we must aggressively pursue,” he said. It is part of the process of implementation of the regulatory and operational system. And therefore it will be essential that further revisions be developed, with professional guidance, in the implementation process, including preparation of Regulations, forms, fees, and procedures; and to undertake necessary amendments to the Bill with the Legislature.”

Nelson, the bill’s sponsor, said that he is looking forward to staying involved in the medical cannabis implementation process but that he is also ready to begin pushing for broader marijuana policy reforms.

“I am ready to assist with the establishment of rules and regulations which will be the next step,” Nelson said. “However, each jurisdiction cannot be satisfied with our own success in getting local law changed, but must continue the charge until there are changes to federal government law.”

“This is just another small victory on the rugged road to full legalization.”

Read the full text of the Virgin Islands Medical Cannabis Patient Care Act below:

USVI medical marijuana bill by on Scribd

UPDATE: A previous version of this story reported that the legislation was signed on Thursday as told to Marijuana Moment by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nelson. The governor signed the bill on Saturday.

Legal Marijuana Advocates Rank The Best And Worst Governors On Cannabis

Photo element courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Marijuana Descheduling Could Be ‘Next Step’ In Congressional Criminal Justice Reform

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Lawmakers in Congress are already weighing additional criminal justice bills as a follow up to recently passed sentencing reform legislation.

Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Douglas Collins (R-GA), who championed the successful First Step Act signed into law by President Trump last month, are now considering introducing a bill that would clear the criminal records of people with nonviolent drug convictions that occurred before Congress reduced minimum sentencing requirements, The Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The legislation, which Collins is tentatively describing as the “Next Step Act,” is still in the early stages of being negotiated and drafted, would also restore people’s ability to get certain jobs after serving their sentences.

Jeffries, the fifth top ranking Democratic in the House, says that provisions removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act should be on the table for inclusion in the bill, and he is holding open the possibility that the minority party will get on board with the idea.

“Descheduling marijuana at the federal level shouldn’t actually be that controversial, and it’s consistent with Republican principles of states’ rights and federalism,” he told the Post.

Jeffries previously described cannabis decriminalization as the natural “next step” in criminal justice reform after the First Step Act passed.

“It’s great to see a member of this stature among House Democrats make this commitment,” Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator with Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “Jeffries is a long champion of marijuana reform and really gets how we cannot have a full conversation about criminal justice reform and economic justice without a conversation about ending marijuana prohibition in a way that centers those most harmed by its enforcement.”

“I’m excited to see what his office will do as they lead on these efforts.”

But while descheduling stands a good chance of passing in the Democratic-led House, it’s not certain that Jeffries’s GOP counterpart would attach his name to a criminal justice reform bill that includes significant cannabis policy changes. Collins would be “unlikely to support such a move,” the Post reported, citing a staffer.

And the prospects of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate are even more dubious.

Still, Jeffries is optimistic that lawmakers of all stripes could get behind descheduling.

“There’s a growing number of conservatives, libertarians and Republicans who are in agreement with Democrats, who believe that we should at least take a hard look at descheduling marijuana,” he said.

Descheduling would be one way to address conflicting federal and state marijuana policies—something that attorney general nominee William Barr said was necessary as more states legalize cannabis during a confirmation hearing this week.

As it stands, marijuana is a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the most restrictive category. In the past, there have been efforts to reschedule cannabis in order to make it easier for researchers to access and study, but those efforts have so far stalled.

Federal Officials Recognize How Marijuana’s Legal Status Blocks Research, Documents Show

Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.

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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First Senate Marijuana Bill Of 2019 Would Force Study On Medical Cannabis For Veterans

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The first Senate marijuana bill of the new Congress focuses on increasing research on the medical benefits of cannabis for military veterans.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) on Thursday, would direct the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to conduct clinical trials on the effectiveness of medical marijuana in the treatment of conditions common among military veterans.

While the new bill has the same title as a proposal the bipartisan duo filed during the last Congress, its language—which is not yet online but was obtained by Marijuana Moment—much more forcefully directs VA to begin researching medical cannabis than the earlier legislation did.

Whereas last year’s version simply said that the department “may conduct and support research relating to the efficacy and safety of forms of cannabis,” nothing in current federal law actually prevents it from doing so.

This latest version stipulates that the VA, which has been reluctant to engage in marijuana studies, “shall” begin conducting clinical trials on cannabis.

“The VA needs to listen to the growing number of veterans who have already found success in medicinal cannabis in easing their pain and other symptoms,” Tester, the ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a press release. “Our bill will make sure the VA takes proactive steps to explore medicinal cannabis as a safe and effective alternative to opioids for veterans suffering from injuries or illness received in the line of duty.”

The proposed double-blind randomized controlled clinical trials are meant to cover the potential therapeutic applications of marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

In particular, the department would have to study areas such as medical marijuana’s effect on opioid, benzodiazepine and alcohol consumption, as well as inflammation, sleep quality, spasticity, agitation, quality of life, mood, anxiety, social functioning, suicidal ideation and frequency of nightmares or night terrors.

Marijuana reform advocates praised the new legislation’s more forceful language as compared to the prior bill.

“The more assertive language is great improvement to this commonsense research bill that could ultimately help veterans with debilitating conditions,” Michael Liszewski, principal of The Enact Group, a lobbying and consulting firm that focuses on cannabis issues, told Marijuana Moment.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs already has the ability to conduct this research and the previous language would have let the Department continue to drag its heels,” he said. “It’s sort of like the difference between a parent telling their child ‘maybe you should clean up your room’ versus ‘you will clean up your room, now.'”

Sullivan said that he’s heard from many veteran constituents who are interested in finding an alternative to prescription painkillers for their pain.

“Many of our nation’s veterans already use medicinal cannabis, and they deserve to have full knowledge of the potential benefits and side effects of this alternative therapy,” he said in a press release.

During the last Congress, the Senate version of the legislation garnered six cosponsors, while 55 representatives ultimately signed onto the House version. The bill became the first standalone piece of marijuana legislation to clear a congressional panel when the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved it in May.

Nonetheless, VA leadership remained reluctant about engaging in marijuana research.

“VA is committed to researching and developing effective ways to help Veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions,” VA Secretary David Shulkin wrote in a letter to lawmakers last year. “However, federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects.”

That isn’t true.

Meanwhile, top officials in the Trump administration have talked about pressuring the VA to conduct studies on medical marijuana for veterans, emails revealed, but they expressed concerns about how the Justice Department would react.

Read the full text of the new Senate veterans medical cannabis bill below:

Senate Veterans Medical Mar… by on Scribd

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