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.
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.”
More State Political Parties Endorse Marijuana Legalization
Delegates at Democratic party conventions in two separate states voted to add marijuana legalization planks to their official platforms this weekend.
In Texas, Democrats embraced a policy to “legalize possession and use of marijuana and its derivatives and to regulate its use, production and sale as is successfully done in Colorado, Washington and other States.” Delegates also called on the immediate legalization of medical marijuana, the removal of cannabis from the list of federally banned substances and the release of individuals convicted of marijuana possession, as well as the expungement of records for individuals convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors.
A separate plank adopted by the party embraces the “legalization of hemp for agricultural purposes.”
The language of the planks is similar to the Texas Democratic Party’s current platform, which also called for marijuana decriminalization and the regulation of the “use, cultivation, production, and sale [of cannabis] as is done with tobacco and alcohol.”
The move comes about a week after the state’s Republican party delegates approved platform planks to decriminalize cannabis, expand the state’s medical marijuana program, reschedule marijuana under federal law and push forward with hemp reform.
In New Hampshire, Democratic delegates also voted in favor of adding a platform plank to legalize cannabis. “We believe that marijuana should be legalized, taxed, and regulated,” the Granite State Dems’ new plank reads. Delegates at the convention also approved a resolution supporting the removal of marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act.
The passage of the pro-legalization plank in New Hampshire reflects a significant policy evolution—but the path to its approval wasn’t necessarily smooth. There was debate among party officials about the initial language of the plank, which said the state should “treat cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol.” The plank was changed to satisfy some members who took issue with the reference to alcohol, The Concord Monitor reported. Even so, not all members were on board with the plank, with House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff arguing that the party should wait until a legislative commission studying the impact of legalization in the state submits its report in November.
That the party’s delegates went ahead and adopted the legal marijuana endorsement is “an encouraging development that bodes very well for the future of cannabis policy in New Hampshire,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “After several years of modest, incremental reforms being obstructed by previous Democratic Governors John Lynch and Maggie Hassan, it’s great to see that the party, and both of its gubernatorial candidates, are now embracing legalization and regulation.”
New Hampshire’s Republican party has not taken up legalization as a platform plank.
The Texas and New Hampshire Dems joined the ranks of several others that approved similar platform positions.
In May, the Democratic Party of New York endorsed a resolution supporting “the legalization of marijuana which should be regulated and taxed in a manner similar to alcohol.” Connecticut’s Democratic party also adopted a platform plank this year stating that “[t]he time for legalization of Marijuana has come.”
“Doing so will raise revenue, which can be used to benefit those suffering from the disease of addiction to prescription pain medications and other opioids.”
And from California to Wisconsin, Democratic party delegates across the country officially backed marijuana legalization in 2016—and numerous others threw their support behind more modest cannabis reform policies such as decriminalization. Iowa’s Democratic party went even further, calling for the legalization of all drugs.
That same year, the Democratic National Convention (DNC) approved the first-ever major party platform to include a plank embracing a “reasoned pathway for future legalization” and the rescheduling of cannabis under federal law.
“We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize it or provide access to medical marijuana should be able to do so. We support policies that will allow more research on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty. And we recognize our current marijuana laws have had an unacceptable disparate impact in terms of arrest rates for African Americans that far outstrip arrest rates for whites, despite similar usage rates.”
The growing support for legalization among Democratic state parties appears to reflect a similar trend in public opinion toward cannabis reform nationally. A recent poll found that a record 68 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal. That includes a majority of Republicans. While federal lawmakers have generally been slower to adopt pro-legalization stances, a number of bipartisan bills have also been introduced in recent months that aim to reform the country’s cannabis laws.
James Comey Weighs In On Marijuana Legalization
Former FBI Director James Comey, at the center of a wide-ranging investigation into whether President Trump obstructed justice, has been asked many times what he thinks about the rule of law and related matters during the course of a publicity tour for his new book.
On Friday, he was asked to share his thoughts about marijuana legalization.
“The experiment is underway in the United States and I think the jury is still out on it,” Comey said.
“What I like about what’s going on in the U.S. is we call the states the laboratories of democracy, and allow the people in the states to experiment — experiment is probably the wrong word in this context — but to make choices, to try and figure out the best way not to overcriminalize behavior that people want to engage in, but also not to reward behavior that might hurt especially young people.”
While the former top federal cop indicated he supports letting states implement cannabis policies that are in conflict with U.S. laws, he’s not yet ready to personally endorse legalization.
“I’d like to see how it goes and what the natural break on it is. Does it really lead down a slippery slope to other drugs?” he said in the interview with LBC in the UK. “And there’s emerging science about the the dangers to the brain of smoked marijuana. Smoked marijuana is not medicine, and so I honestly don’t know.”
“I think it’s worth experimenting with relaxation, talking about it, but monitoring it very closely.”
See Comey’s marijuana comments, roughly 18:50 into the clip below:
In 2014, as FBI director, Comey made headlines by suggesting that he wanted to relax the bureau’s employment policies with respect to drug use.
“I have to hire a great work force to compete with those cyber criminals and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” he said at the time.
He walked the comments back days later in response to questioning from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who now serves as U.S. attorney general.
“I was trying to be both serious and funny,” Comey said in response to the “disappointed” senator.
Photo courtesy of FBI.
Marijuana Legalization Bill Moves Forward In U.S. Territory
About a week after a U.S. territory hit a snag on the road to full marijuana legalization, a committee made several revisions to the bill that are expected to clear the path to passage.
Lawmakers in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) seemed set to put a legalization bill to a full House of Representatives vote on June 12, but the bill was unexpectedly sent back to the chamber’s Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations (JGO).
That same committee previously unanimously approved the legislation in May. It also passed in the territory’s full Senate that month.
Upon referral, the committee made a number of revisions, including the removal of licensing fees for statutory reasons and the addition of a policy that bans regulatory commissioners from participating in the program if they’ve been convicted of a crime within the last 15 years, legalization advocate Gerry Palacios of Sensible CNMI told Marijuana Moment. Because two sections regarding cannabis use and sales for individuals under 21 contradicted each other, one was struck from the legislation.
One question still needs to be resolved by lawmakers: the JGO recommended a recess until July 2 in order to clear up whether fines levied against individuals who violate the law would be counted as “revenue generators.” If the commission determines that these fines are not a part of the revenue stream, the fines provision will remain in the bill. (Revenue generation legislation is supposed to originate in the House — and not the Senate, where the legalization bill was first filed.)
Another change the committee made to the bill on Thursday would speed up the timeline for implementing legalization. The JGO amended the legislation to require that the CNMI Cannabis Commission would be created within 30 days of the passage of the bill instead of 90 days.
“These changes were made for clarification and constitutional purposes for speedy passage of the bill,” Palacios said. “The goal is to keep the intent and integrity of the bill intact while at the same time addressing issues on interpretation of its language.”
“Once the JGO convenes on July 2 after clarification on [the] ‘fines’ issue, they will move to adopt and push for full House review.”
So that’s where the state of cannabis legalization in the U.S. jurisdiction stands. Advocates tell Marijuana Moment that the Senate is likely to OK the changes recommended by the committee, but it’s unclear when a full House vote will take place at this point. If the bill ultimately passes, CNMI will be the first U.S. territory to fully legalize without a preexisting medical cannabis system in place.
“The Senate will have no problem with these changes as long as the bill’s integrity and intent are kept.”
That said, the territory’s governor, Ralph Torres, expressed concerns earlier this month about the potential impact of legalization on public health and crime.
“In the nine states that have legalized marijuana, have we seen an increase in crime?,” he asked, according to Marianas Variety. “If there is, what is the nature of these crimes? We should look at this and other things. I am concerned about public safety issues.”
Here’s what the bill would accomplish
- Adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess, grow and consume cannabis.
- CNMI would establish a regulatory system to produce, process and manage retail sales of marijuana.
- Tax revenue from marijuana sales would go toward funding the regulatory system and other government services.