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VA Continues To Oppose Marijuana Research Bill For Military Veterans Under Biden

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A Senate committee on Wednesday held a hearing on a bill to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of marijuana for military veterans with PTSD and chronic pain—but a VA representative said that the Biden administration is opposed to the reform.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee discussed the cannabis proposal, sponsored by Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), at the hearing, along with 20 other veterans-related bills.

While VA officials gave the agency’s perspective on most of the other bills listed at the hearing, they did not orally weigh in on the marijuana measure. Instead, VA offered written testimony in opposition to the proposal.

Despite bipartisan support for giving veterans access to alternative treatment options like cannabis, VA Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Health for Community Care Mark Upton said plainly that the agency “does not support this proposed legislation.”

VA isn’t necessarily opposing cannabis research for veterans overall, but it argued that the proposed legislation is unnecessary because it is “already dedicating resources and research expertise to study the effects of cannabis on conditions affecting veterans.”

The testimony states that “the proposed legislation is redundant to the extent that VA is already examining risks and benefits of cannabis in treating PTSD and chronic pain” and is “not consistent with VA’s practice of ensuring scientific merit as the basis for a randomized clinical trial.”

VA took particular issue with a provision included in the measure that would require it to study “at least seven types of cannabis and their effects on symptoms of PSTD and chronic pain.”

Upton, who was appointed to the role under the Trump administration in 2020 but continues to serve under President Joe Biden, said that directive “is not consistent with the current state of scientific evidence, which suggests that smaller, early phase, controlled clinical trials with a focused set of specific aims are optimal to determine proof of concept for use of cannabis in treating specific conditions.”

“VA has and continues to examine the current clinical evidence regarding use of marijuana for medical purposes and agrees that more research is needed,” he wrote. “VA has utilized the scientific peer review system and is currently supporting a clinical trial of CBD to treat PTSD where CBD is used as an add-on treatment to standard of care psychotherapy. The results from this study should be available next year.”

The cannabis measure that was under consideration at the hearing explicitly requires that VA conduct a series of clinical trials—rather than just one trial as would have been the case under an earlier version was introduced last Congress—and also sets out specific guidelines for researching the effects of several marijuana varieties with various THC and CBD concentrations.

Tester, the committee chairman and the bill’s sponsor, said in opening remarks that the measure “expands research on alternative treatments for veterans who suffer from the seen and unseen wounds of war.”

“A survey conducted by the American Legion tells us 22 percent of veterans who responded already use cannabis to treat a medical condition,” he said. “Our bill will help the VA get the necessary data to fully evaluate this treatment and educate veterans on the outcomes of using medicinal cannabis to treat certain conditions.”

Upton’s written testimony argues that “the scientific peer review system would not favor simultaneously studying seven variants of cannabis and their effects on varying diagnoses without first demonstrating a specific rationale for each of the queries.”

“Progress in cannabis research must start with a scientific query of what is already known for specific diagnostic categories of interest, then moving to next level clinical investigation,” Upton said.

“VA has a history of scientifically driven research and high-quality clinical trials that have advanced Veterans’ and the Nation’s health care. VA’s Office of Research and Development regularly funds clinical trials approved through its expert peer review system, which evaluates studies for scientific merit based upon the rationale, design and feasibility of the study proposal. Such trials already include medical uses of cannabis for conditions that impact Veterans.”

At a 2019 House hearing, VA officials under Trump came out against a series of cannabis bills, including the prior version of the one before the Senate panel on Wednesday.

The VA secretary “shall carry out a series of clinical trials on the effects of medical-grade cannabis on the health outcomes of covered veterans diagnosed with chronic pain and covered veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” the text of the current bill states. It lists “required elements” of the trials as well as “optional elements” the department could add.

When it comes to the chronic pain trials, the agency would have to look at the impact of marijuana consumption on osteopathic pain, opioid use and dosage, benzodiazepine use and dosage, alcohol use, inflammation, sleep quality, agitation and quality of life.

For the PTSD-specific studies, VA would examine the extent to which cannabis affects basic symptoms of the condition, the use and dosage of benzodiazepines, alcohol use, mood, anxiety, social functioning, agitation, suicidal ideation and sleep quality.

Optionally, the clinical trials “may include an evaluation of the effects of the use of cannabis to treat chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder on” pulmonary function, cardiovascular events, various forms of cancer, intestinal inflammation, motor vehicle accidents, mania, psychosis, cannabinoid hypermesis syndrome, neuropathy or spasticity.

The bill further details specific methodological standards of the clinical trials that would be required. It would, for example, mandate that researchers use “not fewer than seven unique plant cultivars” with specific ratios of THC and CBD. That previous version of the bill in the last Congress only required three different marijuana strains.

The trials will involve “whole plant raw material and extracts.” However, the measure no longer stipulates that “varying methods of cannabis delivery, including combustible and non-combustible inhalation and ingestion” would have to be used as would have been the case under the last version.

Veterans groups voiced support for the cannabis research bill during a second panel at Wednesday’s hearing.

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) said in written testimony to the Senate committee that the organization supports “more comprehensive and scientifically rigorous research by the VA into the therapeutic benefits and risks of cannabis and cannabis-derived products as a possible treatment for service-connected disabled veterans.”

The American Legion, meanwhile, said it “supports efforts to enhance medical cannabis research, urges Congress to remove cannabis from the Schedule I controlled substance list, and believes the DEA should license privately funded medical marijuana production operations in the U.S.”

“Any medical cannabis research legislation should take into consideration clinical trials that track the developing of symptoms related to Cannabis Use Disorder. Enabling safe and efficient cannabis drug development research is vital to providing innovative evidence-based, complementary, and alternative medicine to veterans in the treatment of chronic pain and mental health disorders. It is imperative that VA continue to explore alternative treatments to ensure those suffering from PTSD and chronic pain are provided the best possible care.”

Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI) are sponsoring the House companion version of Tester and Sullivan’s bill.

Last year, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved the prior version of the VA Medical Cannabis Research Act, as well as a separate proposal to allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to their patients in states where it’s legal, but they did not advance to the floor.

The Senate under GOP control did not move any standalone marijuana bills in the last session, but with Democrats now in charge of both chambers and the White House, there’s renewed optimism that modest reforms like this latest measure stand a solid chance of becoming law.

In April, a bipartisan coalition of congressional lawmakers reintroduced bills that would federally legalize medical cannabis for military veterans.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) in January introduced a proposal aimed at ensuring that military veterans aren’t penalized for using medical cannabis in compliance with state law. It would also codify that VA doctors are allowed to discuss the risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.

VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the bill would enshrine those policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.

Meanwhile, congressional leaders are working to end federal marijuana prohibition altogether.

Advocates are pushing for a vote on a federal legalization bill from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) to take place this month.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is also in the process of drafting a bill to end federal cannabis prohibition, which he’s repeatedly said would be introduced “soon.” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is also working the bill alongside Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), said to expect a filing “very soon.”

Read VA’s written testimony on the marijuana research bill for veterans below:

VA Marijuana Research Testi… by Marijuana Moment

Congressional Democrats Defy Biden By Scrapping D.C. Marijuana Sales Ban

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.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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California Activists Cleared To Collect Signatures For Psilocybin Legalization Ballot Initiative

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California activists are now cleared to begin collecting signatures for an initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms in the state.

On Thursday, the state attorney general’s office issued an official title and summary for the proposal, which advocates are aiming to place on the 2022 ballot. Decriminalize California, the group behind the initiative, has a steep task ahead of it to gather enough signatures to qualify—but they’ve been gearing up for the push.

The measure—titled the California Psilocybin Initiative—would allow the “personal, medical, therapeutic, religious, spiritual, and dietary use of Psilocybin Mushrooms” for adults 21 and older. Further, the initiative would allow for the cultivation, retail sale, social sharing and on-site consumption of the psychedelic.

While the measure would legalize psilocybin sales under state law, the attorney general’s title and summary uses the word “decriminalize,” a term that some advocates view as more palatable to people who might not necessarily be inclined to support a commercial model for the psychedelic.

“For individuals 21 and over, decriminalizes under state law the cultivation, manufacture, processing, distribution, transportation, possession, storage, consumption, and retail sale of psilocybin mushrooms, the hallucinogenic chemical compounds contained in them, and edible products and extracts derived from psilocybin mushrooms,” the summary says.

Activists must now collect 623,212 valid signatures from registered voters within 180 days to make the ballot.

Ryan Munevar, campaign director of Decriminalize California, told Marijuana Moment that his team has a multi-pronged approach to make that happen.

They currently have about 2,800 people who’ve volunteered to assist in the signature collection process, he said.

Volunteers will solicit support at farmers markets and other events across the state. People can fill out a form online to be approved as a circulator, and then they can sign the petition themselves and mail it in to the campaign. Individual stores can sign up to receive petitions and serve as conduits for signature gathering. And the campaign could also use the state’s voter database to mail out petitions themselves that voters can sign.

“I feel pretty damn good honestly [about the prospects of the initiative]. People are so psyched for psychedelics,” Munevar said, adding that the recent decision to pause a psychedelics reform bill in the legislature until next year means “this is the only action that’s really there, and the language is just fantastic.”

If the group is successful, it would be a historic policy change, making California the first in the nation to broadly legalize psilocybin mushrooms for medical and recreational purposes. Oregon voters approved an initiative last year to legalize the entheogen for therapeutic use alone.

A recent fiscal analysis of the proposed measure save the state millions in enforcement costs and also generate state and local tax revenue. However, the officials also tempered expectations by pointing out that setting up the regulatory scheme for a legal psilocybin market could initially cost millions. But that could “eventually be partially or fully offset by fee revenue.”

Activists filed the petition with state officials in July. That initiated a 30-day public comment period that lasted until August 11.

If approved in November 2022, the would be no limits on personal possession—a policy that has stirred controversy in the state legislature over separate legislation to legalize possession of a wide range of psychedelics that passed the Senate but has been placed on hold until next year after clearing two Assembly committees.

The sponsor of that bill, Sen. Scott Wiener (D), recent said that the move is part of the “complicated legislative process” to get reform enacted, and he’s confident it will ultimately prevail.

While the California ballot proposal goes further than the Oregon psilocybin measure, it does still have a specific medical component.

Healthcare professionals “may recommend Psilocybin or Psilocybin Mushrooms for use in minors and adults under the age of 21, for the treatment of specific and appropriate indications,” it says.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture would be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the program overall. Meanwhile the state Department of Consumer Affairs and the Health and Human Services Agency would be required to “adopt and implement the qualification requirements and protocols for Psilocybin Mushroom-assisted therapy created by an independent professional certifying body. ”

Activists made a concerted effort in the measure to ensure the psilocybin products are generally treated like other legal commodities. For example, the products would not be subject to any licensing requirements, fees or taxes that “exceed the amount charged or assessed for comparable non-Psilocybin Mushroom related businesses.”

Psilocybin that’s sold for “medical, therapeutic, religious or spiritual purposes” wouldn’t be subject to any sales or excise tax at all. Those that are marketed as dietary supplements would be taxed “at the local sales tax rate at the point of sale.”

“Psilocybin Mushrooms and Psilocybin Mushroom Businesses shall be regulated as closely as practicable to non-psychoactive agriculturally produced mushrooms” except for specific labelling requirements, the measure says. The labels must include a universal symbol and a warning statement advising consumers to keep them out of reach of children and advising about impairment. Packaging must also explain the content of product, including milligrams of active ingredients per package and per serving.

Researchers, healthcare professionals and therapists would have specific protections related to psilocybin that are carved into the initiative. The psychedelic also couldn’t be used as the sole basis to revoke parental rights.

“Starting January 1, 2023, any Psilocybin Mushroom Business operating on land that is zoned for commercial agricultural production and approved by the COPA for food production can begin the cultivation, manufacturing, and wholesale distribution of Psilocybin Mushrooms,” the measure states. “Starting April 19, 2023, any business that is incorporated in California and possesses a California Seller’s Permit can begin retail sales.”

Local jurisdictions would be able to ban or limit psilocybin businesses from operating in their area if voters approve the restriction via citizen initiative or a petition submitted by a governing body.

Except for safety-sensitive positions “no person shall refuse to provide services or benefits or increase the charge for services or benefits, based on the lawful use, cultivation, possession, storage, or sales of Psilocybin Mushrooms,” it says.

Decriminalize California attempted to get a similar measure on the November 2020 ballot, but they faced signature gathering complications due to the coronavirus pandemic and ultimately abandoned that effort.

Read the full title and summary of the psilocybin measure below:

CA psilocybin initiative su… by Marijuana Moment

Washington State Activists Announce 2022 Drug Decriminalization Ballot Campaign

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Workman.

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South Dakota Marijuana Activists Gear Up For Large-Scale 2022 Legalization Ballot Push

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South Dakota marijuana activists are ramping up for a signature gathering effort to put legalization on the 2022 ballot as the state Supreme Court continues to consider a case on the fate of the legal cannabis measure that voters approved last year.

Advocates are still holding out hope that the top court will issue a positive ruling in the case. But no action was announced on Thursday’s weekly decision day for the justices—and because time is running short to mobilize a ballot campaign to qualify for 2022—South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws is now soliciting volunteers to prepare for a massive signature collection drive on any of the four proposed legalization initiatives that the group has filed so far in case the 2020 measure is indeed overturned. 

Matthew Schweich, deputy director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has played a leading role in coordinating reform efforts in South Dakota, told Marijuana Moment that advocates “remain hopeful” that the court will uphold the will of voters, but they aren’t taking anything for granted.

“We must prepare for the worst,” he said. “So we are building a grassroots volunteer signature drive operation across the state in order to qualify another cannabis legalization initiative for the 2022 ballot. We need our supporters to once again donate their time and energy to ensure that the will of the people is respected in South Dakota.”

Activists already got the ball rolling in July, filing the reform measures with the state Legislative Research Council, which is the first step toward putting the issue before voters next year.

The four potential initiatives share some basic provisions, but they each take a unique approach to the policy change. Activists have also filed a fifth measure to eliminate a single-subject rule for the ballot process—a policy that led to a state judge deeming the 2020 recreational measure unconstitutional.

Advocates recognize that the state’s ballot laws mean that they are up against the clock to get any of the measures approved for circulation and to collect enough to qualify. And as the court contemplates the fate of the voter-approved initiative, the campaign is encouraging prospective volunteers to fill out a form to get prepared for signature gathering.

Now that they’ve gone through reviews by the Legislative Research Council, the initiatives must be accepted by the state attorney general and secretary of state. At that point, advocates will have until November 8 to collect at least 33,921 valid signatures for a constitutional proposal and 16,961 for a statutory measure, depending on what direction they choose to take.

Here’s what each of the four potential legalization proposals would do:

Constitutional Approach 1

  • Possession of up to one ounce would be legal for adults 21 and older.
  • People could grow up to three plants for personal use. For households with more than one adult, there would be a six-plant cap.
  • The legislature would be required to develop regulations for licensing of retail sale, cultivation, processing and testing.
  • Public consumption would be banned and punishable by a civil fine.
  • Employers would not be prevented from imposing restrictions on workers’ marijuana use.

Constitutional Approach 2

  • Possession of up to one ounces would be legal for adults 21 and older.
  • People could grow up to three plants for personal use. For households with more than one adult, there would be a six-plant cap.
  • Retail sales would not be legalized by the measure, but it wouldn’t prevent lawmakers from enacting commercialization later.
  • Public consumption would be banned and punishable by a civil fine.
  • Employers would not be prevented from imposing restrictions on workers’ marijuana use.

Statutory Approach 1

  • Possession of up to one ounces would be legal for adults 21 and older.
  • People could grow up to three plants for personal use. For households with more than one adult, there would be a six-plant cap. People could not cultivate their own plants, however, if they lived in a jurisdiction that has marijuana retailers.
  • The Department of Revenue would be responsible for developing regulations and issuing cannabis business licenses.
  • Regulators would have until July 1, 2023 to issue rules for the program.
  • They would have to approve enough licenses to mitigate the influence of the illicit market, but not so many that the industry becomes oversaturated.
  • A 15 percent excise tax would be imposed on marijuana sales.
  • After covering the costs of implementation, half of the remaining tax revenue would go to the state’s public schools and the other half would go to the general fund.
  • Localities would be able to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses to operate in their jurisdiction.
  • Public consumption would be banned and punishable by a civil fine.
  • Employers would not be prevented from imposing restrictions on workers’ marijuana use.

Statutory Approach 2

  • Possession of up to one ounces would be legal for adults 21 and older.
  • People could grow up to three plants for personal use. For households with more than one adult, there would be a six-plant cap.
  • Curiously, while sales would not be legalized by this measure, it also contains a provision that says home cultivation is only allowed in jurisdictions that don’t have marijuana retailers. Lawmakers would be able to enact commercialization later, however.
  • Public consumption would be banned and punishable by a civil fine.
  • Employers would not be prevented from imposing restrictions on workers’ marijuana use.

While advocates remain frustrated over the February ruling that invalidated the 2020 adult-use legalization initiative—and the ongoing delay in the Supreme Court’s decision on upholding or overturning that decision—they’re at least encouraged that the separate medical cannabis measure that voters approved approved took effect in July.

Outside of South Dakota, advocates across the county are also already working on number of state-level cannabis initiatives for 2022.

New Hampshire lawmakers are pursuing a new strategy to legalize marijuana in the state that involves putting a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide on in 2022.

Lawmakers in Maryland are also crafting legislation to place a marijuana legalization referendum on the 2022 ballot after the House speaker called for the move.

Nebraska marijuana activists announced recently that they have turned in a pair of complementary initiatives to legalize medical cannabis that they hope to place on the state’s 2022 ballot.

Ohio activists recently cleared a final hurdle to begin collecting signatures for a 2022 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in the state.

Missouri voters may see a multiple marijuana initiatives on the state’s ballot next year, with a new group filing an adult-use legalization proposal that could compete with separate reform measures that are already in the works.

Arkansas advocates are collecting signatures to place adult-use marijuana legalization on the ballot.

Activists in Idaho are working to advance separate measures to legalize possession of recreational marijuana and to create a system of legal medical cannabis sales. State officials recently cleared activists to begin collecting signatures for a revised initiative to legalize possession of marijuana that they hope to place before voters on the 2022 ballot. Meanwhile, a separate campaign to legalize medical cannabis in the state is also underway, with advocates actively collecting signatures to qualify that measure for next year’s ballot.

After a House-passed bill to legalize marijuana in North Dakota was rejected by the Senate in March, some senators hatched a plan to advance the issue by referring it to voters on the 2022 ballot. While their resolution advanced through a key committee, the full Senate blocked it. However, activists with the group North Dakota Cannabis Caucus are collecting signatures to qualify a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis for the 2022 ballot.

Oklahoma advocates are pushing two separate initiatives to legalize marijuana for adult use and overhaul the state’s existing medical cannabis program.

Wyoming’s attorney general recently issued ballot summaries for proposed initiatives to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize cannabis possession, freeing up activists to collect signatures to qualify for the 2022 ballot.

New Hampshire Lawmakers Take First Step To Put Marijuana Legalization On 2022 Ballot

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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New Jersey Has Expunged A Third Of A Million Marijuana Convictions Since July

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The New Jersey Judiciary announced on Thursday that the state has expunged more than 362,000 marijuana cases since July 1, when a decriminalization law took effect that mandated the relief for people who have been caught up in prohibition enforcement. The courts also said that they will be launching a public education campaign next week to help even more people understand the opportunities for relief under the law.

In the meantime, roughly 1,200 people have also been released from probation since their cannabis expungements were processed.

The courts previously estimated that around 360,000 people were eligible for relief under the new law, so it appears that the review process has effectively identified most of those cases.

These actions, first reported by NJ.com, come after state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued an order in July that also makes it so certain pending marijuana cases must be dismissed, and failure to appear warrants must be rescinded.

“Cases with offenses eligible for expungement include certain marijuana or hashish charges alone or in combination with the following: possession of drug paraphernalia; use or being under the influence of a controlled, dangerous substance; and failure to make lawful disposition of a controlled, dangerous substance,” the Judiciary said in its update on Thursday.

Those who aren’t automatically eligible for expungement can still file a motion for judicial review, it said. The Administrative Office of the Courts also plans to launch an “awareness campaign” on September 20 to “inform the public of the opportunities available through the Marijuana Decriminalization Law.”

Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed companion marijuana legalization and decriminalization bills in February. The legislature was required to pass the former measure after voters approved a reform referendum during the November 2020 election.

“With our new cannabis laws, we are turning the page on the failed War on Drugs and ensuring social justice here in New Jersey,” the governor said in a tweet about the recent record clearing moves.

New Jersey officials have separately been proactive about cannabis reform implementation since the legalization bill was enacted.

The day after Murphy signed the legalization legislation, then-Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) directed prosecutors to drop cases for cannabis-related offenses and issued separate guidance for police on how to proceed under the updated laws.

The attorney general also encouraged prosecutorial discretion for marijuana cases in earlier memos prior to the bill’s signing.

Grewal also took steps to ensure that people aren’t exploiting provisions of the legalization law before retail sales launch. In June, he sent warning letters to companies that were effectively circumventing the state’s marijuana laws by “gifting” cannabis in exchange for non-marijuana-related purchases such as overpriced cookies, brownies and stickers.

Gifting is lawful between adults 21 and older under New Jersey’s adult-use cannabis law, but a number of businesses have allegedly taken advantage of that policy by giving away “free” cannabis products to those who purchase other items like snacks and baked goods.

No retail marijuana businesses have been licensed since the state enacted recreational legalization earlier this year. But regulators approved initial rules for the program last month that will set up the state’s retail market.

More than 70 percent of municipalities in the state have opted to ban cannabis businesses from operating in their area, but voters haven’t had a direct say in the local decisions so far, with local officials making the choice through city councils.

That said, elected officials from several areas who do support cannabis commercialization chose to enact a ban ahead of an August 22 deadline simply to give themselves more time to develop individualized regulations before greenlighting marijuana companies.

Missouri Spends Millions In Medical Marijuana Tax Revenue To Support Veterans Programs

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