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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 20-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

Santa Cruz City Council Approves Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure

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The Santa Cruz, California City Council unanimously voted in favor of a resolution on Tuesday that would effectively decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics by making them among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities.

The measure—which was originally sponsored by then-Vice Mayor Justin Cummings (D), who’s since become mayor—says the city shouldn’t expend “resources in the investigation and arrest of persons twenty-one (21) years of age and older solely for the personal use and personal possession of Entheogenic Plants and Fungi” such as psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine.

It further stipulates that possession and use of psychedelics by adults “should be considered among the lowest law enforcement priorities for the City of Santa Cruz.”

This is the latest in a series of local policy victories for the psychedelics reform movement, which kicked off with a successful ballot measure vote in Denver to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms last May. Oakland’s City Council then unanimously approved a measure to make a broad range of plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics among the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities.

Now activists across the country are hoping to replicate that resolution, with organizers in roughly 100 cities aiming to decriminalize certain psychedelic substances through ballot initiatives and legislative action at the local level.

In November, Santa Cruz’s City Council heard testimony from the group behind the resolution, Decriminalize Santa Cruz. It was then referred to the Public Safety Committee and was amended prior to returning to the full body for a final vote.

Councilmembers revised the original measure in order to “to recognize the need for harm reduction and education for youth and families about drug prevention.” A provision was also inserted to clarify that “the sale, use and cultivation of Entheogenic Plants and Fungi to and by minors should be considered an exception that should require appropriate investigation by the Santa Cruz City Police Department.”

The word “cultivation” was also removed from provisions specifying the measure’s scope. But before the full Council vote on Tuesday, several advocates used the public comment portion of the meeting to urge that it be added back in, and members adopted that request before approving the final resolution.

“With possession and use being inserted without cultivation, that actually encourages the black market because there’s nowhere else to go,” Cummings, the mayor, said. “If people are are cultivating at themselves they know exactly what they’re producing.”

Activists celebrated their city becoming the third in the U.S. in less than a year to decriminalize certain psychedelic substances.

“These eight months we’ve been working on the resolution, I’ve met so many people whose lives were saved by entheogenic plants and fungi,” Julian Hodge, a founder of Decriminalize Santa Cruz and a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “The Santa Cruz City Council took a great step to help those people today. I am incredibly proud to be part of this movement, and can’t wait to see the change we continue to make in the future.”

Another provision of the measure instructs the city’s state and federal lobbyists to “work in support of decriminalizing all entheogenic psychoactive plants, and plant and fungi-based compounds listed in the Federal Controlled Substances Act.”

Beyond Decriminalize Santa Cruz, a newly formed group called Project New Day also advocated for the reform move. The organization, which is focused on promoting research into psychedelics for the treatment of addiction and other mental health conditions, sent a press release on Tuesday highlighting comments from a military veteran who overcame addiction with the help of medically supervised psychedelics treatment.

“Psychedelic-assisted therapy saved my life,” Dylan Jouras said. “It’s important that people know there is an effective way to get better from addiction and deep mental health issues.”

While the local Santa Cruz resolution wouldn’t allow legal sales of psychedelics, another group of advocates is currently collecting signatures toward placing a broad statewide psilocybin legalization initiative before California voters on the November ballot.

In Oregon, organizers are hoping to put a proposal before voters that would legalize psilocybin for therapeutic use. Separately, a campaign in that state is pushing a measure to decriminalize possession of all drugs with a focus on funding substance misuse treatment.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said at an Iowa campaign stop last week that he wants to legalize psilocybin for military veterans.

Andrew Yang Wants To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms For Military Veterans

Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

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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New Mexico Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill

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A New Mexico Senate committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would legalize marijuana for adult use.

With a little more than three weeks left in the state’s short 2020 legislative session, lawmakers are making clear their intent to advance the legalization proposal in a timely fashion.

The bill, which is supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), cleared the Senate Public Affairs Committee in a 4-3 vote.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D) led the introduction of the bill before the committee, testifying that he believes “2020 is the year New Mexico becomes the third state to enact legalization of cannabis through legislative action,” following Vermont and Illinois.

“We know that New Mexicans across the state, from rural to urban centers, are with us on this issue.”

“Bringing an underground market aboveground takes a lot of deliberation, statewide input from community members and stakeholders, ingenuity and learning from other states’ experiences,” the senator, who is himself a medical cannabis patient, said. “The criminalization of cannabis disproportionately harms and criminalizes young people and people of color, sponsors violence and corruption by those who currently exclusively trade in cannabis in the black market. The current situation, our status quo that relies on a black market outside of the medical program, does nothing to curb youth access to cannabis.”

The governor included legalization in her formal 2020 legislative agenda and discussed the importance of establishing a well-regulated and equitable cannabis market in her State of the State address this month.

The day after Lujan Grisham’s agenda was released, lawmakers filed the legalization bill, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. The legislation also contains social justice provisions such as automatic expungements for prior cannabis possession convictions.

The proposal would not allow home cultivation; however, it does decriminalize the cultivation of up to three plants and six seedlings, making the offense punishable by a $50 fine without the treat of jail time.

Additionally, the bill would eliminate the gross receipts tax for medical cannabis sales, mandate that recreational dispensaries service registered patients and create a subsidy program for low-income patients to access marijuana.

Recreational cannabis sales would be taxed at nine percent, with revenue going toward that subsidy program in addition to a “cannabis industry equitable opportunity investment fund” to support entrepreneurs from communities most impacted by the drug war, a “community grants reinvestment fund” and a workplace training program, among other programs.

According to a fiscal analysis, the state stands to bring in nearly $6.2 million in recreational cannabis revenue in Fiscal Year 2021. By FY20204, that amounts would rise to nearly $34 million. Municipalities and counties would rake in additional revenues.

“Legalizing and regulating will bring one of the nation’s largest cash crops under the rule of law, generating an estimated between 11,000 and 13,000 jobs for New Mexicans in every corner of the state,” Candelaria said.

The legislation must still pass in two other panels—Judiciary and Finance—before it gets a full vote on the Senate floor.

This latest development at the committee-level is the product of months of work from legislators and the governor’s administration. Last summer, Lujan Grisham formed a working group tasked with reaching out to community members and stakeholders, studying various components of cannabis regulation and submitting recommendations ahead of the current session.

The final report, which was released in October, laid out a number of proposed rules and restrictions for a legal marijuana market.

Earlier last year, the New Mexico House of Representatives approved a bill to legalize marijuana but it later died in the Senate. Lawmakers did send Lujan Grisham a more limited bill to simply decriminalize cannabis possession, which she signed.

While it’s possible that the current committee-passed legislation will be amended as it makes its way to a full Senate vote, or that companion legislation could be changed in the House, recent polling shows that New Mexico residents are widely in favor of the general policy change. Three-out-of-four residents who participated in a state-funded survey that was released last month said they back legalization.

If all goes according to the governor’s plan, a final legalization bill will be delivered to her desk by the end of the session—and upon her signature, New Mexico would likely become the 12th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

That said, lawmakers in states across the U.S. are eyeing cannabis reform this year, and a marijuana legalization bill advanced in a New Hampshire House committee earlier on Tuesday.

New Hampshire Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill

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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New Hampshire Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill

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A New Hampshire House committee approved a bill on Tuesday that would legalize marijuana for adult use in the state.

While the legislation doesn’t provide for retail sales, it would allow individuals 21 and older to possess and gift up to three-fourths an ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants. The model would be similar to neighboring Vermont’s non-commercial cannabis system.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee advanced the bill in a 13-7 vote.

“I think that the legalization of cannabis is more popular than the legislature itself or the governor or any other political entity in the state of New Hampshire,” Chairman Renny Cushing (D) said prior to the vote. “This is something that the people of the state of New Hampshire want. They don’t want to be treated like they’re criminals if they have a plant.”

Watch New Hampshire lawmakers discuss the marijuana legalization bill below:

This vote comes a week after the panel held a hearing on the proposal, with advocates and stakeholders testifying in favor of the reform move.

“Like most Granite Staters, this committee understands that it’s time for New Hampshire to stop prohibiting cannabis,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Adults in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state should not be punished for their choice to use a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”

“Now that New Hampshire is literally surrounded by jurisdictions where cannabis is legal for adults, our current policies can no longer be justified in any way,” he said. “It’s time for the House, Senate and Gov. Chris Sununu to work together and move cannabis policies into the 21st century.”

A floor vote by the full House of Representatives is expected on February 6.

Tax-and-regulate marijuana legislation has advanced in the legislature in prior sessions, but it never arrived on the governor’s desk.

Even if it did make it that far, however, it’s unclear if Sununu, a Republican, would sign it. He’s voiced opposition to commercial legalization, and he vetoed a bill last year that would’ve allowed medical cannabis patients to cultivate their own marijuana, raising questions about whether he’d be willing to support this latest measure extending that right to all adults over 21.

In any case, the New Hampshire development comes amid a flurry of legislative activity around cannabis in the Northeast.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) included legalization in his budget last week, as did Rhode Island’s governor, who pitched a state-run cannabis model in her plan. In New Jersey, the legislature approved a referendum to put the question of recreational legalization before voters during the November election. Top lawmakers in Connecticut are also confident  that marijuana reform will advance this year. In Vermont, advocates are hopeful that lawmakers will add a legal sales component to the state’s current noncommercial cannabis law.

Vermont Governor ‘At The Table’ On Marijuana Legalization Talks, Top Lawmaker Says

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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