Several of the U.S.’s most prominent veterans advocacy organizations are stepping up the push for medical marijuana.
During two hearings on Capitol Hill this week, leaders of veterans service groups called on Congress to force the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to do more to provide access to and conduct research on medical cannabis.
“This is the year that our views will be heard on cannabis,” Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in front of a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees on Tuesday.
“Veterans consistently and passionately have communicated that cannabis offers effective help in tackling some of the most pressing injuries we face when returning from war,” she added in written testimony. “Policies are outdated, research is lacking, and stigma persists. In 2018, IAVA members will set out to change that and launch a national conversation underscoring the need for bipartisan, data-based, common-sense solutions that can bring relief to millions, save taxpayers billions and create thousands of jobs for veterans nationwide. Those solutions must include the approval of medical cannabis for every veteran in America who needs it.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars is on board as well.
“VA mental health care is making a positive impact on those who use it, but there is still room for improvement,” Keith Harman, the national commander in chief for VFW, said in testimony for a separate hearing before the panels on Wednesday. “The VFW urges Congress and VA to conduct a federally-funded study with veteran participants for medical cannabis. This study should have a focus on participants who have PTSD, but should most definitely include veteran participants who are VA patients for chronic pain and oncology.”
The American Legion the nation’s largest military veterans advocacy group, prominently included a call for medical marijuana reform at the VA in an appearance before the committees last month.
“The federal government continues to list cannabis as a Schedule I drug – the most addictive and dangerous – although its addiction rates are lower than alcohol, and the less-restrictive Schedule II classification applies to opioids, which kill 91 Americans every day,” American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan said. “By continuing to consider accumulating evidence of the efficacy of cannabis-based medicines, the federal schedule fails patients fighting debilitating conditions, including PTSD and potentially lethal opioid addiction.”
Lawmakers also spoke up in support of increased access to cannabis this week.
“A lot of [veterans] have recently been telling me that they don’t want opioids,” Congressman Lou Correa (D-CA) said during the Wednesday hearing. “They don’t want those drugs in their bodies, and they prefer medical cannabis.”
While Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin has consistently maintained that the VA is barred by federal law from recommending medical cannabis or even participating in research on the drug, the department quietly updated its website last month to acknowledge that it “can look at marijuana as an option for treating Veterans.”
Advocates have pointed out that there is no overarching federal law blocking the VA from changing its own internal policies on marijuana.
In her written testimony for this week’s hearing, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s Bryant slammed VA for not letting veterans access medical cannabis recommendations from the doctors who know them best. The group also supports the continuance of far-reaching protections that prevent the Justice Department from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws:
“However, despite strong support from across all geographies, generations and political backgrounds of veterans, progress on this issue with the VA has been slow and incremental–and lags behind the needs of veterans and the changing reality of state-level laws. In late 2017, the Veterans Health Administration issued a policy change which urged patients to discuss medical marijuana use with their doctors. The shift allows doctors and patients to determine what, if any, effect cannabis use might have on treatment plans. This policy change alleviates previous concern that admitting to cannabis use could jeopardize VA benefits, a policy recommendation noted in IAVA’s Policy Agenda. But VA physicians still cannot refer patients to legally sanctioned state medical cannabis programs because of the federal prohibition. Moreover, patients are not allowed to have any cannabis on VA property, even if it is medically prescribed to them and the state they are living in allows it. And VA employees are still barred from using any form of cannabis, including medical cannabis, while roughly one-third of VA employees are veterans and may want access to cannabis as a treatment option.
“Further, in opposition to strong and rising popular opinion across the veterans community, the VA Secretary announced in early 2018 that the VA will not conduct research into whether medical cannabis could help veterans suffering from PTSD and chronic pain. This is despite protest from many in the VSO community who posit medical cannabis could serve as an alternative to opioids and antidepressants…
“IAVA will join select VSO partners in 2018 to amplify the voices of our collective members and urge Congress and the VA to pass and implement common sense legislation and policy sanctioning the use of medical cannabis by veterans. We will push to close the loopholes in VA policy which inhibit the discussion of cannabis usage between veterans and VA clinicians; current VA medical cannabis policy should be updated to allow for VA clinicians to provide recommendations and opinions to patients regarding medical cannabis programs. We urge the VA to conduct research into the use of medical cannabis as a treatment option for chronic pain and mental health injuries. IAVA also calls on Congress to pass legislation to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III drug from a Schedule I drug. Finally, IAVA calls for support to Senate FY 2018 Commerce/Justice/Science Appropriations (S. 1662/Sect. 538) language that prohibits the Department of Justice from preventing implementation of state cannabis access laws, including for medical purposes.”
Written testimony from VFW’s Harman also detailed the benefits of cannabis and called for more research:
“In the past several years PTSD and TBI have been thrust into the forefront of the medical community and general public in large part due to suicides and overmedication of veterans. Medical cannabis is currently legal in 30 states and the District of Columbia. Many of these states have conducted research for mental health, chronic pain and oncology at the state level. States that have legalized medical cannabis have also seen a 15-35 percent decrease in opioid overdose and abuse. There is currently substantial evidence from a comprehensive study by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academic Press which concludes cannabinoids are effective for treating chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, sleep disturbances related to obstructive sleep apnea, multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms, and fibromyalgia –– all of which are prevalent in the veteran population.
“In April 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration approved a study on the effect of medical marijuana on PTSD, which was intended to be the first federally funded, randomized and controlled research for PTSD in the United States. That study has not gone as planned for multiple reasons, however, such as restrictions placed on possible study participants and unusable marijuana shipments from the only federally-approved grower in the United States.”
The House and Senate have both passed amendments in recent years to allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to veterans in states where it is legal, but the measures have not been enacted into law.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.
California Governor Signs Marijuana Tax Fairness Bill But Vetoes Cannabis In Hospitals
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced on Saturday that he signed several marijuana-related bills into law—including one that will let legal businesses take advantage of more tax deductions—but also vetoed another measure that would have allowed some patients to use medical cannabis in health care facilities.
Under a section of current federal law known as 280E, marijuana growers, processors and sellers are unable to deduct expenses from their taxes that businesses in any other sector would be able to write off. Until now, California policy simply mirrored the federal approach.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.
Former FDA Head Floats Federal Marijuana Regulation ‘Compromise’ To Address Vaping Issue
Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb seems to propose changing the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law as a “compromise” to provide limited regulations and promote research.
In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, Gottlieb said the recent spike in vaping-related lung injuries involving contaminated THC cartridges demonstrates the need for federal regulations.
While he expressed frustration over the “federal government’s decade-long refusal to challenge state laws legalizing pot,” he also recognized that enforcing prohibition in legal states isn’t politically practical and floated a “feasible compromise” that would “require Congress to take marijuana out of the existing paradigm for drug scheduling, especially if Congress wants to allow carefully regulated access for uses that fall outside FDA-approved drug indications.”
That language leaves room for interpretation, but he goes on to say that the “ship has probably sailed on legalization for recreational use” and that “regulation of the potency of THC compounds, the forms they take, how they’re manufactured, and who can make purchases ought to be possible.”
Gottlieb stopped short of explicitly backing descheduling, which would represent a formal end to federal prohibition. Still, his recommendation that the government control aspects of legal marijuana markets like THC potency is a more concrete position than he’s taken in recent weeks, where he’s repeatedly bemoaned the lack of regulations and the gap between state and federal cannabis laws as contributing to vaping issues without endorsing a specific policy to correct it.
It’s clear in the editorial that the former commissioner feels Congress has missed its opportunity to prevent the proliferation of state-legal cannabis programs. And he criticized the Obama administration for issuing guidance that offered states some assurances that the Justice Department wouldn’t interfere in their markets, as well as congressional riders barring the department from using its funds to enforce prohibition against medical cannabis patients and providers following state laws.
My Op Ed in today’s @WSJopinion – The tragic vape injuries involving THC demand that we consider a federal reckoning when it comes to the dangerous conflict between state and federal pot laws that leave federal regulators on sidelines https://t.co/HGptTfx8Db
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) October 11, 2019
“The result is an impasse,” he wrote. “Federal agencies exert little oversight, and regulation is left to a patchwork of inadequate state agencies. The weak state bodies sanction the adoption of unsafe practices such as vaping concentrates, while allowing an illegal market in cannabis to flourish.”
One area where FDA might be able to exercise its regulatory authority in this grey space would involve oversight of vaping hardware. Because the agency is able to regulate the “components and parts” of vapes for tobacco use—and because companies generally market those products as being intended for the use of vaporizing herbs and concentrates generally—it could be argued that FDA has jurisdiction over regulating the devices. However, that would still prove challenging “without clear laws and firm political support,” Gottlieb said.
My Op Ed in @WSJopinion – The conflict between federal and state law when it comes to marijuana has created a dangerous gap in oversight. It's about time we consider a new federal paradigm when it comes to regulation of cannabis and its active ingredients https://t.co/QifVa5Dbfq
— Scott Gottlieb, MD (@ScottGottliebMD) October 13, 2019
“THC is currently illegal under federal law,” he said. “Right now there’s no middle ground allowing federal agencies to scrutinize these compounds for their manufacturing, marketing and safety.”
Again, it’s not exactly clear what kind of federal regulation Gottlieb is proposing to Congress. He spends part of his op-ed noting the difficulties scientists face in obtaining high quality cannabis for research purposes—an issue that policymakers have indicated rescheduling could resolve—but he also said the government should ensure that any reform move is “backed up with oversight and vigorous enforcement to keep a black market from continuing to flourish and causing these lung injuries.”
That’s led some to assume he’s talking about descheduling and providing for broad regulations, as regulating the market is largely viewed as a primary means of disrupting the illicit market and enforcing safety standards for marijuana products. But the continued ambiguity of his position raises questions about whether he’s actually proposing Congress should go that far.
“The protracted hand-wringing over federal cannabis policy must stop,” he said. “The tragic spate of fatalities related to vaping of pot concentrates means the time has come for Congress and the White House to stop blowing smoke and clear the air.”
Mexican Senate Committees Will Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill Next Week
Mexican Senate committees will introduce an updated proposal to legalize marijuana for adult use within days.
During a meeting on Thursday, members of the Health, Justice, Public Security and Legislative Studies Committees announced that they would remain in permanent session as they go through various legalization bills that lawmakers have already filed and present a comprehensive new piece of legislation on Thursday.
Sen. Miguel Ángel Navarro Quintero of the ruling MORENA party, who is a cosponsor of one existing reform bill, said the development “is a positive step to regulate—it is definitely a positive step,” according to TV Aztecha.
The primary focus of the committees will be on legislation introduced by Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero last year, senators said. However, there are about a dozen other legalization bills on the table, including one to have the federal government control the marijuana market, and they said provisions of each proposal would be taken into consideration.
The panels will also look at public input and expert testimony—including a panel led by a former White House drug czar—that were gathered as part of a weeks-long series of cannabis events that the Senate organized.
“It is a backbone that we are taking into account,” Sen. Julio Menchaca of the MORENA party said of Sánchez Cordero’s bill, which the cabinet member filed while previously serving as a senator, adding that “each of the initiatives that different senators have presented are also very important.”
Quintero said “if we are committing an open parliament, all opinions must be taken into account, because if not, we would be simulating a process.”
If the committees are successful in advancing the legislation, that would put the chamber one key step closer to meeting a deadline imposed by the Supreme Court last year. After ruling that the country’s ban on possession and cultivation of cannabis by adults is unconstitutional, it gave lawmakers until the end of October to change federal drug policy.
The leader of the MORENA party in the Senate, Sen. Ricardo Monreal, said earlier this month that the chamber was on track to vote on a legalization bill ahead of that deadline.
Separately, the chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, Sen. José Narro Céspedes, said on Thursday that legalization will be an economic boon for farmers and must be implemented in a way that disrupts the illicit market.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.