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Veterans Affairs Department Doubles Down On Medical Marijuana Opposition

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs really wants the military veterans it is charged with serving to know that it isn’t going to do anything to help them access medical marijuana.

While longstanding VA policy has been to disallow government physicians from helping veterans qualify for state medical cannabis programs, a new update to the department’s website sends the message even more clearly — even though it misstates what the law actually is.

“Veterans should know that federal law classifies marijuana – including all derivative products – as a Schedule One controlled substance. This makes it illegal in the eyes of the federal government,” the department’s VA and Medical Marijuana webpage was updated to read this week. “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is required to follow all federal laws including those regarding marijuana. As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule One VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.”

That’s not true, at least inasmuch as there is no overarching federal law that prevents V.A. from allowing its doctors to recommend medical cannabis, even though the drug is still considered illegal under federal law.

A leading Congressional champion of veterans’ medical cannabis access told Marijuana Moment that he’s concerned about the new VA website edit.

“This new language is very disturbing, but sadly, comes to no surprise. For years, the VA has been throwing up serious barriers to veterans’ safe access to cannabis,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) said in an emailed statement. “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 VA doctors who know them best.”

“VA clinicians may not recommend medical marijuana,” the newly update page says. The older version more correctly, though somewhat misleadingly, said, “VA clinicians may not prescribe medical marijuana.” [Italicized emphasis added.]

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. That category 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.

Even with marijuana’s Schedule I status, there is nothing in federal law that prevents V.A. from allowing its doctors to fill out medical cannabis recommendation forms in states where it is legal.

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.

VA SECRETARY MISSTATES FEDERAL LAW

Shulkin has on a number of occasions indicated that he does see medical potential for marijuana but has consistently falsely claimed that Congressional action is needed before he can do anything to increase veterans’ access. And he has often used the term “prescribe” — intentionally or not — as something of a distraction from the real issue of recommendations. But the new VA website update addresses recommendations, albeit incorrectly.

During a White House briefing earlier this year, Shulkin 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.”

Shulkin, who previously served in the Obama administration as V.A.’s undersecretary of health, wrote in a letter last year that he “wholeheartedly agree[s] that VA should do all it can to foster open communication between Veterans and their VA providers, including discussion about participation in state marijuana programs.” He went so far as to say that he “recognize[s] that the disparity between Federal and state laws regarding the use of marijuana creates considerable uncertainty for patients, providers, and Federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel.”

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.

In July, Shulkin announced that a new directive is in the final stages of internal review. While he didn’t reveal what it will say, he wrote in a letter to a U.S. House member that it would “maintain the same policy” as the earlier directive.

CONGRESSIONAL EFFORTS

A bipartisan group of members of the House and Senate has tried over the years to pass legislation forcing the VA’s hand on medical cannabis, but has been consistently blocked by Congressional leadership.

Most recently, Republican-controlled House Rules Committee blocked an amendment on the issue from even being considered on the floor this summer. But a rider preventing VA from spending money to enforce its existing internal ban is in the Senate version of 2018 spending legislation, and so the issue will be decided by a conference committee that later merges both chambers’ bills into a single proposal.

Last year, however, both the House and Senate approved different version of the medical cannabis language but the conference committee removed both of them from the final bill.

VETERANS ADVOCATES PUSH FOR CHANGE

The American Legion, which represents more than 2.4 million military veterans, has been pressuring the federal government to evolve on medical cannabis. Most recently, in August, it adopted a resolution calling on VA to let its doctors write medical marijuana recommendations.

“More than half the states in the union have passed medical marijuana laws to date,” the group’s resolution reads. “The American Legion urge the United States government to permit VA medical providers to be able to discuss with veterans the use of marijuana for medical purposes and recommend it in those states where medical marijuana laws exist.”

The Legion and other medical cannabis advocates have also called for rescheduling and pressed VA to stop blocking 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 VA hospital.

“This study needs 50 more participants and the Phoenix VA 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 Legion wrote to Shulkin last month. “Your immediate attention in this important matter is greatly appreciated. We ask for your direct involvement to ensure this critical research is fully enabled.”

MORE VA WEBSITE CHANGES

Other new changes to the V.A. webpage include the removal of bullet points that read, “VA doctors and clinical teams may advise Veterans who use marijuana of the drug’s impact on other aspects of the Veterans’ care such as pain management, PTSD or substance use disorder treatment” and “VA doctors and clinical staff will record marijuana use in the Veterans VA medical record along with its impact on the Veterans treatment plan.”

In their place, the page now says, “VA health care providers will record marijuana use in the Veterans VA medical record in order to have the information available in treatment planning. As with all clinical information, this is part of the confidential medical record and protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws and regulations.”

An existing point reading, “The use or possession of marijuana is prohibited at all VA medical centers, locations and grounds,” was followed up with a new clarification that says, “When you are on VA grounds it is federal law that is in force, not the laws of the state.”

The department does make it clear that “veteran participation in State medical marijuana program does not affect eligibility for VA care and services.” That longstanding policy means that patients won’t lose access to their government-provided healthcare just because they use medical cannabis.

But, until Shulkin acts to change the internal prohibition or Congress steps in and forces his hand, the VA isn’t going to do anything to help veterans get medical cannabis.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Forces Special Operations Command.

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

GOP Senator Reveals What Trump Said About Jeff Sessions’s Anti-Marijuana Moves

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President Donald Trump immediately rebuked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the day that he rescinded Justice Department guidance on federal marijuana enforcement priorities, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) revealed during an interview on the Cannabis Economy podcast earlier this month.

Following a meeting on trade and tariffs in the Oval Office, Gardner pulled Trump aside to express his opposition to the rescission of the Obama-era cannabis document known as the Cole Memo. But before he could finish his sentence, the president interrupted to say “we need undo this” and “[Sessions] needs to stop this.”

“It was very clear to me at that point that there was a disagreement between the president and the attorney general on this,” Gardner said. Trump also said, “I don’t like this, this isn’t something I support,” but that it was too late to reverse the decision.

“This sounds like something my grandpa said in the 1950s,” was an exact phrase the president used, per Gardner’s recollection.

“At that point I realized that there was an ally in the president on this.”

In response to Sessions’s decision, Gardner started blocking Justice Department nominees until he received assurances that the federal government would not take enforcement action against legal cannabis businesses operating in compliance with state laws. That blockage prompted a subsequent phone call with the president, who said there was one nominee in particular he wanted to confirm.

Listen to Gardner’s interview with the Cannabis Economy podcast below:

Gardner explained why he was holding nominees, to which Trump replied, “OK, you’ve got my commitment to support the bill, you’ve got my commitment to support a solution on this,” referring to bipartisan legislation Gardner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced to exempt state-legal marijuana activity from enforcement under the Controlled Substance Act.

Trump later told reporters that he “really” supports the legislation, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Entrusting States (STATES) Act.

During his conversation with the president, Gardner cautioned that states like Colorado would be put in jeopardy if the Justice Department followed through on Sessions’s threats. But Trump said, “we’re not going to do that, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“That was the commitment from the president not only on showing that he’s going to disagree with Jeff Sessions, but actually saying, ‘don’t worry about what he’s done because it won’t impact Colorado,’ and then moving forward down for a solution,” Gardner said.

Sessions resigned from his position at the president’s request in November, and the Senate confirmed his replacement, William Barr earlier this month. Barr was repeatedly pressed about how he would approach federal cannabis policy during his confirmation hearing and in followup questions, and he made consistent pledges not to use Justice Department resources to “go after” state-legal marijuana businesses.

He did, however, encourage Congress to resolve conflicting federal and state cannabis laws through legislative action.

Trump Issues Signing Statement On Medical Marijuana Provision Of Funding Bill

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Five Governors Talk Marijuana And Hemp At Media Conference

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The governors of five states weighed in on marijuana and hemp during appearances at Politico’s ninth annual “State Solutions” conference on Friday.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) said hemp should be regulated “just like any crop” and emphasized that he wants his state to continue to expand its legal hemp and marijuana economies. The pro-legalization governor, who pledged to make Colorado the nation’s leader in industrial hemp production during his State of the State address last month, also pulled out a business card printed on hemp paper during the event.

Then the conversation pivoted to broader federal cannabis policy. Polis said “there’s an existential threat to everything we’re doing in Colorado” because of the lack of formal protections against federal intervention in state marijuana laws.

“Obviously the counterbalance to that is the federal government—even if they somehow did make this more of an enforcement priority—don’t have the ability on the ground to prosecute so many people,” he said.

“I hope that they can either reinstate something like the Cole memorandum or, even better, that Congress can finally move forward with changing the laws and leaving it up to the states,” the governor said, referring to Obama-era marijuana enforcement guidance that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded last year.

Polis also said that if the state got wind of pending federal enforcement, “it would be of great concern and we would bring that to the highest levels of the White House.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), whose constituents voted to legalize medical marijuana during November’s midterm election, was asked what he thought about allowing the use of medical cannabis to treat opioid addiction.

“I think everybody would like to have any kind of medicine that will help alleviate pain and suffering,” including opioid dependence, he said. But he said the federal government was at fault for failing to address cannabis rescheduling in order to enhance clinical research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits.

“We ought to change the law, allow it to be studied,” he said. “What are we afraid of?”

And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) discussed the state’s possible legalization of industrial hemp. She said it was important to wait for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release “federal guidelines” on hemp production first and also to ensure that the state has the money and resources to regulate the crop.

The conversation comes after Noem urged the state Senate to postpone a scheduled hearing on an industrial hemp cultivation bill, a request the body ultimately agreed to earlier this week. The legislation passed the House in a 62-5 vote last week.

During the interview, Noem also expressed concerns generally about the lack of roadside drug tests to determine impaired driving from marijuana, and she said it’s important as governor to consider the public safety ramifications” of an industrial hemp market.

The second session of the conference featured Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D), who also spoke about cannabis.

Brown touted the legal cannabis industry and said it has stimulated job growth in Oregon, where she said about 20,000 people work for marijuana and hemp businesses. It should be a “top priority” for Congress to ensure that the cannabis industry has access to banking services, she said.

The Connecticut governor reiterated his belief that the state will legalize marijuana and “do it right” during his interview.

Without a regulated cannabis system, the illicit market will continue to thrive and people are already “driving over the border” to Massachusetts, where adult use is legal, so “that train has left the station,” he said. A significant portion of the Connecticut House has already signed onto an adult use legalization bill

But the existing system breeds “disrespect for the law,” Lamont added. What’s more, cannabis enforcement disproportionately targets communities of color, which is part of the reason that he considers legalization a “criminal justice issue.”

Legalization legislation should also involve expunging the records of individuals with prior cannabis convictions, he said.

Lamont revealed that he’s talked to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D), who has recently and reluctantly embraced reform in response to neighboring states moving to legalize, and that the two agreed to work together to create effective marijuana systems in their respective states.

This story was updated to add comments from Brown and Lamont.

Two More Governors Call For Marijuana Legalization During Budget Speeches

Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

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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Florida Senator Wants To Let Voters Decide On Marijuana Legalization

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A joint resolution introduced in the Florida Senate on Thursday would add a new section to the Florida Constitution to establish the right “to possess, use and cultivate cannabis.”

“This right may not be infringed, except that the transfer of cannabis by purchase or sale may be regulated by law as necessary to ensure public health and safety,” reads the measure, which would apply to adults over 21 years of age.

If approved by lawmakers, the question would go before voters in the 2020 general election.

The resolution, introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) of Orlando, comes as Florida lawmakers weigh other bills that would expand the allowable forms of medical marijuana in the state.

“I think if we just go straight to the people and ask them, ‘is this something that you want,’ it puts the onus back on us to regulate it,” Bracy told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview. “I think it’s such a controversial issue that the legislature is not in a position to agree on how it should be regulated. The best way to do it is to go through the people and then it will come back to us to figure out how to regulate it.”

“I’ve always thought the people are more progressive on this issue than the legislature is and I believe they are ready for legalization of marijuana. Whenever I hear from folks, it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’”

Under regulations instituted after voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2016, patients are prohibited from smoking the drug. But new Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has called on lawmakers to change that, threatening to drop the state’s appeal of a lawsuit seeking to over turn the ban if the legislature doesn’t act by mid-March.

While a House bill would prohibit the smoking of medical marijuana by those under 18, another bill in the Senate allows patients under 18 to smoke only if two doctors agree it to be the best method.

The two proposals are expected to receive floor votes in their respective chambers within the next few weeks.

“From the House perspective, the biggest sticking point is children,” State Rep. Ray Rodrigues told Florida Politics. “We don’t believe children should be smoking medical marijuana…but we’re having conversations.”

The 2016 ballot measure added language in the state constitution allowing the use of medical cannabis by those with cancer, AIDS/HIV, epilepsy or other conditions as determined by their doctor. Two years earlier, a similar measure got majority support from voters but fell short of the 60 percent threshold required to pass.

If Bracy’s full legalization amendment advances to the ballot, it appears to have a good chance of passing. A poll last year found that Florida registered voters support “legalizing and regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol, limiting its sale to residents 21 years of age or older” by a margin of 62 percent to 35 percent.

Marijuana Legalization Bill Approved By Key New Hampshire House Committee

This story has been updated to add comment from Bracy.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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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