A congressional committee approved two bills focused on marijuana and military veterans on Thursday. The action is the first markup of cannabis-related legislation on Capitol Hill this year.
The bills approved by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee are geared toward expanding access to medical cannabis for the veteran population and increasing research into the plant’s therapeutic benefits for conditions such as chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Veterans Equal Access Act, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), would allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states where it’s legal. It was approved in a vote of 15-11.
“Today was a monumental day for our veterans. We have been working for years to reform this counterproductive policy that forces veterans outside of the VA to receive legal medical cannabis treatment for chronic pain and PTSD,” Blumenauer said after the vote. “This is the culmination of the tremendous work of our movement, but we will not be finished until this becomes the law of the land. We must reform our federal cannabis policy.”
The VA Medical Cannabis Research Act, led by Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), would require VA to conduct clinical trials on the medical potential of cannabis in the treatment of conditions that commonly afflict veterans. It was approved in a voice vote.
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act has been passed by the Veterans Affairs Committee and is headed to the Floor!
My bill directs @DeptVetAffairs to research cannabis for vets.
This is a huge step forward for veterans yearning for alternatives to dangerous opioids.
— Rep. Lou Correa (@RepLouCorrea) March 12, 2020
“Our nation’s veterans have been calling for alternatives to opioids for decades. Cannabis has the potential to be that alternative,” Correa said. “Many studies from around the world show cannabis’s effectiveness for treating PTSD and chronic pain. It’s time we did the research and got our vets the medications they need. We owe it to every veteran to never stop looking for ways to treat their scars.”
Watch the hearing below:
After the bills were discussed by the panel last year, they were scheduled for votes that were later cancelled.
During Thursday’s meeting, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), the panel’s ranking Republican member, sought to amend the Veterans Equal Access Act by preventing it from taking effect until marijuana is federally rescheduled and the secretary of Veterans Affairs informs Congress that research has shown clinical benefits of cannabis.
“Until that research is preformed it would be nothing short of irresponsible to ask a physician to recommend its use to their patients,” he said, adding that in his view the measure would open up doctors to “legal liabilities under federal law” and put them in an “untenable position.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), the committee chairman, spoke against the amendment, saying it would “gut the intent of this bipartisan bill.”
The panel first defeated the proposed change in a voice vote and then rejected it in a subsequent roll call vote of 14-12.
The House and Senate have both previously approved annual spending bills containing riders blocking VA from punishing doctors for writing medical marijuana recommendations, but no such measure has yet been enacted into law.
The separate research bill was amended via a proposal by Roe to remove specific directives to VA on how cannabis’s benefits should be studied.
“My amendment does not include the onerous restrictions that the underlying bill has about what the research must look like,” he said.
Last year, Roe filed a standalone bill that is nearly identical to the text of his amendment, which was adopted by the panel in a voice vote.
Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) also filed an amendment to add provisions stating that veterans may not be denied VA benefits as a result of state-legal marijuana use and further clarifying that VA doctors can discuss cannabis consumption with patients and record it in their medical records.
“It’s important to ensure our veterans have access to these forms of treatment in states where they are legal,” he said.
While VA currently has a policy that shields veterans from losing benefits over cannabis use, it could be administratively removed at any time without action by Congress.
Steube’s measure “would codify that VA directive and make it clear in the law if veterans are taking advantage of a medicinal marijuana program in their state, they will not be denied benefits or access to their VA benefits,” he said.
Through procedural action in today’s @housevetaffairs hearing, I was able to get an important proposal passed that will ensure veterans who are participating in state-approved medical marijuana programs are not denied their VA benefits. Watch my full speech in the committee! pic.twitter.com/w7vVL76Nvk
— Congressman Greg Steube (@RepGregSteube) March 12, 2020
The congressman introduced a standalone bill last year that has similar aims as his amendment, which the committee approved in a voice vote.
Cannabis reform supporters and opponents weighed in on the advancement of the legislation.
“Now that a majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical use, it is indefensible to restrict veterans’ ability to access medical cannabis through their VA providers while members of Congress can use their federally subsidized health insurance to obtain medical cannabis recommendations from their doctors. Federal law should not criminalize veterans for trying to find relief,” Don Murphy, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “Passing these bills should be the first order of business for a Congress that prides itself on supporting our veterans. Like every American, veterans should be granted the freedom to access cannabis to treat their medical conditions as an alternative to potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals.”
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said that the “absolute least” veterans are owed is “to ensure they are taken care of when they return to civilian life.”
“It is imperative that we approve legislation such as the Veterans Equal Access Act so that the countless vets suffering from post-traumatic stress and other debilitating disorders have access to the safe and effective option of medical marijuana treatment,” he said.
Disabled American Veterans cheered the passage of the research bill in a tweet.
— DAV (Disabled American Veterans) (@DAVHQ) March 12, 2020
Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana said that it welcomes research on cannabis but expressed concerns about the legislation to expand veterans’ legal access to the drug.
“We support any serious effort to expand research into cannabinoids that may have medicinal benefits,” Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release. “Our veterans deserve the best healthcare they can get for the sacrifices they have made for our country. Unfortunately, many veterans are turning to the wild promises of high-potency products that may actually be exacerbating their struggles.”
“We support any serious effort to expand research into cannabinoids that may have medicinal benefits. Our veterans deserve the best healthcare they can get for the sacrifices they have made for our country."
— SAM (@learnaboutsam) March 12, 2020
Earlier this year, Correa and fellow lead research bill cosponsor Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA) circulated a letter asking colleagues to support the legislation as cosponsors. As of Thursday, 105 members have signed on—about one-fourth of the full House.
The Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved a marijuana research bill in 2018 but it never received a floor vote.
For Blumenauer’s part, he attempted to insert language to allow VA doctors to recommend cannabis into annual spending legislation, but he withdrew it, citing opposition from VA.
Nevertheless, there’s renewed hope that the committee’s move to advance the legislation means full floor votes might be on the way.
After the panel cancelled its initially scheduled votes last year, members participated in a closed-door roundtable to discuss the need for medical marijuana research for veterans.
There’s been growing interest among veterans, advocates and lawmakers to pass legislation to increase access to cannabis for veterans, or at least explore its medical potential.
A Republican senator and representatives of a veterans advocacy group discussed the issue during a joint hearing last month.
Meanwhile, VA said it is planning to post a notice shortly to solicit scientific information about the potential of cannabis and its components to treat medical conditions such as chronic pain and PTSD.
This story was updated to include comment from Altieri, Blumenauer, Correa, Murphy and Sabet.
Image element courtesy of Tim Evanson.
Missouri Marijuana Legalization Campaign In Jeopardy Due To Coronavirus
Coronavirus has dealt another blow to the marijuana reform movement. This time, activists in Missouri announced on Saturday that their effort to put a cannabis legalization measure on the ballot has “no practical way” of succeeding amid the pandemic.
In recent weeks, the outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in business closures and increased calls for social distancing in states across the country. That has made mass signature gathering for drug policy reform measures virtually impossible.
“Unfortunately, while there is widespread support from Missourians to tax and regulate marijuana, there is currently no practical way during the COVID-19 outbreak to safely, publicly gather the 170,000 plus signatures needed over the remaining 6 weeks to put this on the Missouri ballot in 2020,” John Payne, campaign manager for Missourians for a New Approach, said.
He added that the group is still “exploring our options at this point” but if it ultimately cannot find a path to the ballot for this November, “our supporters from every corner of this state will be back next cycle to put this on the 2022 ballot and finally bring Missouri the benefits of a safe, adult-use marijuana program.”
A total of 160,199 valid signatures from registered voters are needed in order to qualify the measure for this year’s ballot, and the campaign says it has so far collected roughly 80,000—though it is unclear how many of those have been validated. Organizers have aimed to collect more than needed in case some submissions are not accepted.
In a separate email circulated to supporters earlier on Saturday, Dan Viets, coordinator for Missouri NORML and an advisory board member for Missourians for a New Approach, said the “status of the effort to legalize adult use of marijuana in Missouri this year is unclear.”
“No official decision has yet been made regarding whether to suspend the campaign,” he said. “If we do so, it is likely we will return to pursue this goal in 2022.”
“It is, of course, virtually impossible to effectively gather signatures on petitions given the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Gatherings of more than a very few people in any one place have been banned. Almost all colleges and universities have switched to online teaching. No large meetings, conferences, or other gatherings are taking place. We should know within a very short time whether the campaign will be continuing this year or not.”
The language of the campaign messages indicates that activists aren’t entirely throwing in the towel just yet. But that’s a change of tone compared to a message sent to key organizers earlier this month by Graham Boyd, director of the national New Approach PAC, which has been a chief funder of the Missouri effort.
Boyd wrote in the March 17 email obtained by Marijuana Moment that after “much deliberation, we’re making the very difficult, but ultimately unavoidable, decision to end our 2020 adult-use legalization effort in Missouri.”
“As you can imagine, the onset of the coronavirus situation has made that already difficult process essentially impossible,” he said at the time, adding that after discussing the issue with reform campaigns in other states, it “seems likely that the situation will get much worse in many more states before it gets better.”
Since then, organizers have worked to try to salvage the effort.
Activists officially started signature gathering for the Missouri campaign in January, and they were optimistic that voters in the state would embrace the reform move. The proposed initiative would allow adults 21 and older possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers and cultivate up to three plants for personal use.
Additionally, it would impose a 15 percent tax on marijuana sales, with revenue going toward veterans services, substance misuse treatment and infrastructure projects. Individuals with cannabis convictions would be empowered to petition for resentencing or expungements.
Boyd stressed in his email that cancelling the campaign would be a “temporary setback” and that it’s “clear from the work and polling we’ve done so far that voters in Missouri are ready to approve a marijuana legalization law.”
Beyond Missouri, coronavirus has already proven to be a formidable presence in 2020 politics, with multiple drug policy reform campaigns having been impacted by the public health crisis.
Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.
Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges.
In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.
Arizona activists shared some more positive news this week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
Scientists Sue DEA Over Alleged ‘Secret’ Document That Delayed Marijuana Research Expansion
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is finding itself in court over marijuana again after scientists filed a lawsuit against the agency, requesting “secret” documents that they allege DEA used to delay action on expanding cannabis research.
The Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) is behind the suit. It’s one of more than 30 organizations that have submitted applications to DEA to become licensed cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
Some background should be noted: In 2016, DEA announced it would expand marijuana research by approving additional growers beyond the sole source that has existed for half a century at the University of Mississippi. But after more than three years, applicants heard silence, and SRI filed an initial lawsuit alleging that the agency was deliberately holding up the process. A court mandated that it take steps to make good on its promise, and that case was dropped after DEA provided a status update.
This month, DEA finally unveiled a revised rule change proposal that it said was necessary due to the high volume of applicants and to address potential complications related to international treaties to which the U.S. is a party. A public comment period is now open, after which point the agency says it will finally approve an unspecified number of additional growers.
But what really accounted for the delay?
According to the plaintiffs in this new suit, after DEA said it would accept more cultivators, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) secretly issued an opinion that interprets international treaty obligations as making it impossible to carry out the 2016 proposed rule while maintaining compliance.
The new revised rule aims to address the problem, in part by shifting jurisdiction over the cannabis to a single agency, DEA, which would purchase and technically own all of the cannabis grown by approved cultivators, and would then later sell the product directly to researchers.
That OLC document, which is not public, is the basis of SRI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaint. The case was filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on Wednesday and requests that the Justice Department be found guilty of unlawfully failing to make records available related to its interpretation of the Single Convention treaty, including the OLC opinion. It further states that DEA should release those documents and pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.
Matt Zorn, an attorney working the case, told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview that it’s not clear what’s contained in the OLC opinion and that the uncertainty is “entirely the point” of the suit.
“I think we all know vaguely what it says—the subject matter of it—but we don’t know what it actually says,” he said. “That’s important because you need to know what that instruction was or what their interpretation of the law is to assess whether what they’re doing now is appropriate.”
The suit claims that SRI, “as a non-commercial company dedicated to advancing the state of medical care through clinical research, is directly harmed by this unlawful secrecy.”
“Because Defendants have failed to fully disclose their re-interpretation of federal law and treaty obligations as the law requires, Plaintiff lacks information necessary to protect its legal rights, including the right to have its application to manufacture marijuana for research processed in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and the [Controlled Substances Act],” the filing states.
SRI’s research objective for cannabis is to determine potential therapeutic benefits for veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “While DEA’s unlawful and dilatory conduct harms the public generally, the secrecy and delay have been especially harmful to our nations’ veterans,” the suit says.
“We deserve not only to know the scientific truth about medical marijuana use, but candor from our government, which includes disclosure of the ‘secret law’ the agency continues to rely on as a basis to delay and ultimately revamp the process for researching and manufacturing marijuana in this country,” the filing says. “Plaintiff brings this FOIA action so can understand the legal basis—if there is one—for the government’s conduct surrounding the Growers Program.”
While SRI acknowledged that DEA last week announced its revised rule change proposal, the suit states that the explanation about how it arrived at its determination “leaves Plaintiff and the public in the dark with respect to several critical considerations.” For example, it alleges, the notice doesn’t account for how the Justice Department advised the agency on the matter and which parts of the amended proposal would make the action compliant with international treaties.
“The answer to these questions and others presumably lies in the undisclosed OLC Opinion and related records that animated DOJ’s decision to sideline the Growers Program and prompted DEA to embark on this notice-and-comment rulemaking in the first place… In sum, using a secret OLC Opinion interpreting the CSA and a 1961 international treaty, DEA delayed processing applications to cultivate marijuana for research and now proposes to radically revamp federal law through rulemaking—rules which will loom large over the future of medical marijuana research, manufacture, and distribution going forward.”
The plaintiffs argue that DEA violated federal statute that prohibits the creation of a “secret law.” The statute says that federal agencies must make records—including final opinions and policy interpretations not published in the Federal Register—public.
“To block the Growers Program, DOJ formulated—through the OLC Opinion and related records—and DEA adopted to an undisclosed interpretation of the Single Convention and federal law contrary to the view espoused and published by DEA in the August 2016 Policy Statement, and contrary to the view of the State Department,” it continues, apparently referencing a letter the State Department sent to a senator in response to questions about the role of international treaties as it concerns expanding cannabis cultivation facilities.
In that letter, the department said nothing about the Single Convention prevents member nations from increasing the number of such facilities. “If a party to the Single Convention issued multiple licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes, that fact alone would not be a sufficient basis to conclude that the party was acting in contravention of the Convention,” it read.
Read the State Department’s responses on international treaties and marijuana below:
If the new lawsuit’s allegations prove accurate, it could help explain the role of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the anti-marijuana official who was reportedly involved in blocking research expansion.
The suit, which was first reported by Politico, goes on to say:
“For more than three years, Defendants relied on this undisclosed interpretation, contained in the OLC Opinion and related records, to make an end-run around the Administrative Procedure Act by unlawfully withholding and unreasonably delaying agency action on marijuana cultivation applications. The OLC Opinion has guided DEA’s actions—and its inaction… The government’s unlawful conduct under FOIA prevents Plaintiff and those similarly situated from timely and effectively vindicating legal rights under the Administrative Procedure Act, effectively rendering its protections and judicial review provisions meaningless.”
To resolve the issue, SRI said it wants DEA to be held accountable for violating federal law, release the documents and compensate them for the legal action. While this is a FOIA-related suit, the institute didn’t first seek the documents through a standard document request but instead filed the case under the law’s “Reading Room provision” that allows courts to force federal agencies to put records online, according to a Ninth Circuit ruling last year.
Sue Sisley, a researcher with SRI, told Marijuana Moment that the institute has generally had a good relationship with DEA over the years and doesn’t expect that it would unduly deny their application in retaliation for the institute’s repeated legal actions against the agency.
“I couldn’t fathom that that would happen, but I hope that the merits of our application are so clear that it would carry us forward,” she said. However, these licensing agreements are “not always a merit-based process so it is possible that if politics get deeply involved here that there could be a situation where licenses are awarded to friends of the government. We’re still praying that there is some merit-based system.”
Researchers and lawmakers have made clear that the current availability of federally authorized cannabis for research raises questions about the accuracy of tests that rely on it, as the quality is insufficient. As of now, there’s only one facility at the University of Mississippi that’s authorized to grow cannabis for researchers. The products developed at the university have been widely criticized by scientists and lawmakers. A study indicated that the facility’s cannabis is chemically more similar to hemp than marijuana available in state-legal markets.
“If adopted, these proposed rules would radically overhaul how medical marijuana manufacture and research will proceed in this country,” the plaintiffs wrote. “Better supply is needed for better research, and better research is needed not only because millions use medical marijuana every day, but also to facilitate informed policymaking at the federal and state levels, including legislation and drug scheduling decisions.”
Read the full lawsuit against DEA below:
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
First Legal Marijuana Home Deliveries Begin In Colorado
For the first time, people in Colorado will be able to legally have marijuana products delivered directly to their homes starting on Friday.
The launch of the limited program focused on medical cannabis patients comes one week after the dispensary chain Native Roots announced that its Boulder location The Dandelion had received the state’s first marijuana delivery license. And while the license wasn’t related to the coronavirus outbreak, the timing is opportune, as officials have increasingly cautioned against leaving home to avoid catching or spreading the virus.
The delivery service will be limited to patients living in either Boulder or Superior. They must also be registered with the dispensary, and those who are not already signed up must do so in-person for the time being—though Native Roots said it is “looking into a compliant, remote solution for patient registration.”
Native Roots said there is a $100 minimum purchase, and they’re encouraging patients to pay with a debit card rather than cash, presumably because drivers could be targets of burglaries if they’re transporting large amounts of cash or because of concerns that money changing hands could further the spread of COVID-19.
Cannabis delivery services are a new feature of Colorado’s legal marijuana program. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed legislation last year allowing the option, though individuals jurisdictions must proactively opt-in, so as of now that number of cities permitting deliveries is limited. Native Roots said it’s been engaging with local governments about the issue for months.
Deliveries for recreational cannabis consumers won’t begin until January 2021 under the law.
As more businesses shutter as a result of the pandemic, there’s growing demand for alternative means of obtaining marijuana products, and several states have taken steps to address that concern by encouraging deliveries and curbside pickup, for example.
For patients and reform advocates, that represents an ideal solution compared to closing dispensaries altogether. Numerous legal states have categorized cannabis shops as essential services that are exempt from mandates to close down. And according to a poll released this week, a majority of Americans agree with that decision.
But while the market remains largely operational in the midst of this health crisis, reform advocates across the U.S. are feeling the impact and struggling to continue campaign activities, including in-person signature gathering.
Campaigns to change state marijuana programs, legalize psilocybin mushrooms, legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes, legalize medical and recreational cannabis, decriminalize psychedelics and broadly decriminalize drug possession have all faced challenges amid the pandemic, and several have implored officials to allow electronic signature gathering to overcome the barrier.
An exception to this appears to be Arizona, where activists recently said they’ve collected more than enough signatures at this point to qualify for the state’s November ballot.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.