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.”
Watch: Senator’s Spot-On Impression Of Mitch McConnell Talking About Marijuana
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was apparently taken aback when he heard that the red state of Utah is likely to legalize medical marijuana in November.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) said in an interview on Wednesday that the exchange took place during Senate’s tax reform debate earlier this year, and he executed a pretty uncanny impression of McConnell in the retelling.
Asked by Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call to share his favorite story about McConnell, Gardner said the two struck up a conversation on the Senate floor about marijuana and small business tax issues.
At the time, the Colorado senator was pushing an amendment to undo the provision in federal tax law known as 280E that prevents marijuana businesses from writing normal expenses off of their returns.
Gardner pressed McConnell on the issue, telling him that “47-plus states have legalized some form of marijuana, medical marijuana, CBD… Even Utah is most likely gonna legalize medical marijuana this year.”
“And McConnell looks at me and he goes, ‘Utah?’ And just this terrified look. Right as he says that, [Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT)] walks up, and Mitch looks at Orrin, and he says, ‘Orrin, is Utah really gonna legalize marijuana?'”
Then, looking at his feet, hands folded, the Mormon senator from Utah deadpanned: “First tea, then coffee, and now this.”
“It was just hysterical,” Gardner said.
You can watch the full Roll Call interview here.
Though McConnell isn’t quite the face of cannabis reform in Congress, he’s taken a leadership role in the fight to legalize industrial hemp—successfully securing a provision to accomplish just that in the Senate-passed version of the Farm Bill, which is now being reconciled with a proposal from the House that contains no hemp language.
Gardner, meanwhile, has embraced reforms sought by the legal cannabis industry in the years since Colorado became the first state to end marijuana prohibition in 2012.
Photo courtesy of RollCall.
Man Sends Marijuana Samples To Feds… To Make A Legal Point
Mailing numerous cannabinoid samples to U.S. courts and the Department of Justice was a key part of one man’s convoluted lawsuit strategy against the federal government that relied on an obscure Confederate-era statute, court filings show.
Oh, right. This requires some explanation. So, it’s not entirely clear what the end-game in this case was meant to be, but the essential facts are as follows: a man named Jeffrey Nathan Schirripa filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, alleging that the government failed to hold up its end of a contract that, in a roundabout way, he attempted to force upon it.
Schirripa first sent cannabinoid samples to the Justice Department and a U.S. district court in 2015 to lay the groundwork for a theoretical “contract” between himself and the government, according to the filings. But the court “dismissed the complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Then, in an apparent effort to “prove the existence” of a contract, Schirripa attached unspecified parts of marijuana to 18 copies of a confidential petition for rehearing this year. Schirripa seemed to believe that he was creating “subject matter jurisdiction,” a necessary component of an implied unilateral contract that he said the government violated.
The court did not agree that unsolicited mailings of controlled substances constituted the relevant subject matter in an implied contract, though. On Monday, it filed this order:
“The Clerk of Court is directed to transmit these 18 documents to the U.S. Marshals Service for appropriate disposition or alternate action within the purview of the U.S. Department of Justice.”
The judges explained that the specific U.S. statute that Schirripa used as the basis of his subject matter claim was enacted in 1861, and it was exclusively designed to “weaken the Confederate States by authorizing the President to seize property aiding the Confederacy in its insurrection.” In other words, it didn’t apply here.
In his petition for rehearing, Schirripa included a flow chart visualizing of his intended logic.
It starts with the fact that he sent prototypes of “neuroprotecting antioxidants” to members of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Schirripa admits that sending the “gifted” substances directly violated the Controlled Substances Act. So far, so good.
But from there, the petitioner seems to suggest that in both possible scenarios he presents—that the law can be enforced against him for mailing a controlled substance or that it can’t and so the cannabinoids are therefore “subject to prize/capture”—he’s proven to be an “interested party,” thereby validating his claim that the government breached an implied unilateral contract.
“I don’t fully understand the Schirripa’s flow chart, but it appears to be a boot-strap version a catch-22 for the court—the type of argument that you might figure out while high,” Dennis Crouch, a law professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, wrote in a blog post about the case.
The court seemed to agree. The statutes upon which Schirripa rested his contract theory “have no relation to any contract theory or any government bid or procurement practice,” the judges ruled in their denial of his rehearing. “The Court of Federal Claims thoroughly considered Mr. Schirripa’s arguments and theories, and fully explained their inapplicability.”
The appeals process might not have worked out, but it’s hard to imagine that Schirripa will be totally deterred. This marks his third appeal on “related actions” since 2014, court documents show. The legal logic of an implied unilateral contract didn’t hold up this time, but Schirripa—who has described himself as “the world’s most qualified expert in the realm of Cannabinoid Reform”—seems to be nothing if not tenacious.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas C. Morton.
Marijuana And Other Drugs Should Be Legalized, Likely Next House Judiciary Chair Says
A Democratic lawmaker who many political observers believe will likely be the next chairman of the powerful U.S. House Judiciary Committee implied in an interview on Wednesday that he supports legalizing other currently illicit drugs in addition to marijuana.
“From everything we have learned, people are going to do drugs. And certainly the softer drugs like marijuana, there’s no good reason at all that they cannot be legalized and regulated properly,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said.
“The major effect of the war on drugs has been to fill our prisons with huge numbers of people to no great effect except to waste money and to ruin lives.”
In the comments, which Nadler made during an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, the congressman did not specify with substances he believes should be legalized, but his use of the pluralized phrase “softer drugs like marijuana” and the word “they” suggests his anti-prohibition views extend beyond just cannabis.
There is no precise definition of what constitutes a “soft drug” as compared to a “hard drug,” but some analysts categorize substances like LSD, psilocybin and MDMA in the former category in light of their lack of addictive potential.
Nadler is currently the top ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal law enforcement agencies involved in drug enforcement and prosecution. If Democrats take control of the House in the midterm elections, as many poll watchers predict, he would likely ascend to the panel’s chairmanship and have the power to bring marijuana and other drug reform bills up for a vote.
Also in the radio interview, Nadler called the war on drugs an “abject failure” that is “not succeeding in reducing crime or doing anything else.”
“We ought to look at drugs as a public health issue.”
The comments came shortly after another key Democrat, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), released an eight-page memo to fellow party members laying out a step-by-step strategy for how they can accomplish federal marijuana legalization in 2019 if they take control of one or both chambers of Congress. The plan includes a hearing on marijuana descheduling before the Judiciary Committee.
When it comes to marijuana, Nadler sees it as “far less damaging than nicotine to people’s health and we should probably regulate it similarly,” he said in the interview, adding that its current restrictive Schedule I status “doesn’t make any sense.”
Photo courtesy of David.