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Veterans Groups Battle Medical Marijuana Ban On Capitol Hill

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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 “Policies are outdated, research is lacking, and stigma persists.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.

American Legion Pushes Congress On Medical Marijuana At Hearing

“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.

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

Three Major Cannabis Reform Bills Are Heading To The Texas House Floor

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A Texas House committee unanimously approved a bill on Wednesday to expand the state’s medical marijuana program by adding over a dozen health conditions that would qualify patients for participation. And additional cannabis-related legislation is on the horizon, too, with lawmakers in position to potentially vote on marijuana decriminalization and hemp legalization in short order.

Under the medical marijuana bill, patients with cancer, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Tourette syndrome, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis would qualify to access cannabis. Patients who experience certain side effects such as severe nausea from conventional therapies would also be able to get medical cannabis.

That would mark a significant expansion of the state’s currently limited medical marijuana system, which only allows patients with intractable epilepsy who’ve exhausted their pharmaceutical options to access cannabis. Finding a specialist doctor to make the recommendation has been another challenge, which further explains why the program has roughly 600 registered medical marijuana patients in a state of about 29 million people.

“Overall, we’re really pleased to see unanimous support for the legislation out of the public health committee,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Legislators are taking this issue more seriously now than every before, and they’re responding to their constituents who want to see these laws changed.”

Fazio said she was especially encouraged that the legislation, which currently has more than 50 authors and coauthors, would establish an in-state research panel to study medical cannabis.

All that said, reform advocates aren’t entirely satisfied with the bill as it was amended. While the expansion would be a welcome development, lawmakers scaled back the proposal so that the 0.5 percent THC cap for medical cannabis products under current law would remain in place, whereas the original bill would have lifted it.

Additionally, there are concerns about certain terminology in the bill. Advocates hoped lawmakers would use the word “recommend” instead of “prescribe” when it comes to the doctor’s role in the program because “prescribing” marijuana could jeopardize health professionals given federal restrictions. That said, the legislation does define “prescription” in a way that offers some protections at the state level.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, where it will await placement on the agenda for a full House floor vote.

Texas might not seem like the most obvious destination for cannabis reform, but state lawmakers have become increasingly interested in tapping into the issue. Earlier this month, three House committees discussed a total of 11 cannabis-related bills—from decriminalizing marijuana to regulating hemp—in a single day.

A decriminalization bill advanced out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in a 5-2 vote last month. It’s possible that that legislation, which currently sits in the Calendars Committee, could receive a full House floor vote as early as next week. However, lawmakers are looking at multiple decriminalization bills that have been introduced this session and may decide to advance a different version.

Meanwhile, another cannabis bill is already scheduled to be debated in the full House next week. The legislation, introduced by Rep. Tracy King (D), would legalize hemp and its derivatives like CBD. The House Agriculture and Livestock Committee voted unanimously to advance the legislation earlier this month.

“We’re seeing that policymakers are finally catching up with public opinion and where their constituents stand on this important issue that has affected so many live and families and communities over the last nearly a century,” Fazio said. “Thankfully people are having meaningful conversations about how current policies are failing and new ways that we can move forward. ”

In the past month, committees in Missouri, Hawaii and Alabama have each advanced marijuana decriminalization bills, and the governor of New Mexico signed decriminalization legislation into law.

Alabama Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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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People Could Use Marijuana In Public Housing Under New Congressional Bill

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People living in federally assisted housing would be allowed to use marijuana in compliance with state law under a bill introduced by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) on Thursday.

Current law prohibits those who use a federally illicit substance from being admitted into public housing, and landlords are able to evict such individuals. The congresswoman’s legislation is designed to protect people living in public housing or Section 8 housing from being displaced for using cannabis in states that have legalized for medical or adult use.

“Individuals living in federally funded housing should not fear eviction simply for treating their medical conditions or for seeking a substance legal in their state,” Norton said in a press release. “Increasingly, Americans are changing their views on marijuana, state by state, and it is time that Congress caught up with its own constituents.”

“With so many states improving their laws, this issue should have broad bipartisan appeal because it protects states’ rights,” she said.

The bill would also require the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to enact regulations to restrict smoking marijuana at these facilities in the same way that it does for tobacco.

Norton introduced an earlier version of the Marijuana in Federally Assisted Housing Parity Act last year, but it did not receive a hearing or vote.

At least one HUD official, who oversees New York and New Jersey, has signaled an interest in amending federal law so that people who use cannabis retain the ability to live in federally assisted housing. Regional officer Lynne Patton tweeted last year that “[s]tate & federal law needs to catch up with medicinal marijuana usage & require private landlords to legally permit the same. Period.”

Congressional Democrats Hold First-Ever Marijuana Reform Panel At Policy Retreat

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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Hundreds Of People Are Sending CBD Comments To The FDA

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced earlier this month that it was accepting public comments on CBD regulations, and more than 400 people have already made their voices heard.

Comments published on Regulations.gov range widely in subject matter, but the main theme running through them is that regulations should be light and companies should be able to lawfully market products containing cannabidiol. Many added that marijuana in general should be legalized, even though the agency did not request that people weigh in on that broader issue.

The comment period was designed to help inform an upcoming public hearing on CBD regulations that the FDA is holding on May 31. Amy Abernethy, principal deputy commission of the FDA, tweeted a link for stakeholders to register for the hearing on Wednesday.

The FDA listed out several questions mostly concerning the safety of cannabis-derived products, how to enact quality control measures and what “validated analytical testing is needed” to ensure that CBD is manufactured in a consistent manner.

David Mangone, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access, offered some tips on how to submit effective comments in an earlier interview with Marijuana Moment, and one of the takeaways was that the FDA is primarily interested in receiving scientific evidence that addresses the agency’s specific questions—as opposed to personal anecdotes about CBD use.

Some, like Matthew Lubeck, followed that advice. He commented that CBD should be allowed into the food supply because “the bioavailability and reactiveness within the human body and the cannabinoid system” isn’t ideal when the compound is isolated.

Brent King offered an assessment examining the potential use of CBD as an exit drug from addictive substances such as opioids. He cited a study that showed reduced opioid overdoses in states that have loosened marijuana laws as an example.

“The gateway theory falls victim to the mistaken assumption that correlation alone implies causation,” King said. “Using the same logic, one could argue that drinking milk is a gateway to illicit drug use since most people who use illicit drugs also drank milk as young people.”

Others raised questions about the CBD market as it exists today—unregulated by the FDA as the agency continues to weigh possible options to allow hemp-derived CBD into the food supply or as dietary supplements. An anonymous comment expressed concerns about product consistency across companies that are already selling CBD, arguing that “variance from product to product is confusing” and makes it difficult to “make an informed decisions” about what products to use.

“The public needs protection from unscrupulous companies goals to get rich,” the person wrote.

All that said, most comments did not adhere to Mangone’s or the FDA’s guidelines. The vast majority of comments were anecdotal and individualized. People suffering from conditions such as anxiety, pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia urged the FDA to loosen restrictions on CBD, describing their own life-changing experience with the product. Several others talked about the health benefits of CBD that they observed in pets.

While that might not be what the agency asked for, that doesn’t change the fact that there is a broad consensus among those who took the time to comment: CBD is safe and has proven medical value, and people should be allowed to freely access it.

It’s not that simple from the FDA’s perspective, however. Former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has repeatedly stressed that because CBD exists as an FDA-approved drug (Epidiolex) and hasn’t previously been introduced to the food supply, there’s no clear regulatory framework to put it through, even if that was the intention of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives.

Gottlieb has told members of Congress that additional legislation may be required to provide for the marketing of CBD, or else it may take years before the FDA can identify an alternative regulatory pathway. In the meantime, the FDA is taking a “risk-based” approach to enforcing laws governing CBD marketing that involves cracking down on companies making unsanctioned claims about the health benefits of their CBD products.

Federal requests for public input on cannabis-related policies are nothing new. Thousands offered their perspective on marijuana scheduling under international treaties when the FDA requested feedback on that issue last year. More recently, another federal agency solicited studies from the public on how cannabis can treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

FDA Chief Explains Agency’s ‘Risk-Based Approach’ To CBD Enforcement

Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor.

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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