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.
Oregon Psilocybin Initiative Gets Boost From New TV Ad But Draws Opposition From Unlikely Source
An Oregon ballot initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes is getting a boost from a nonprofit veterans group’s new TV ad. But meanwhile, the campaign is seeing pushback from an unexpected source.
On the one side, the Heroic Hearts Project—which helps connect veterans to entheogenic-based healing and provides complementary counseling—is airing an advertisement in the state that highlights the therapeutic potential of taking psilocybin in a clinical setting.
The 30-second spot doesn’t explicitly mention the reform measure that will appear on Oregon’s November ballot, but it could help inform how voters approach that question when they head to the polls nonetheless. According to the group, it will play on television frequently enough that the average viewer should see it about seven or eight times.
Here’s the script of the ad:
“As a scientist, I’m impressed by the research. Major universities findings show psilocybin therapy can be effective for depression and anxiety.
It’s plant medicine [the Food and Drug Administration] calls breakthrough therapy, meaning it can be an improvement over available options.
The psilocybin therapy program: Research-based with patient safety top of mind, strictly regulated.
We’re in a mental health crisis. The science is real, the restrictions smart. Psilocybin therapy: Healing, providing hope.”
Heroic Hearts Project is largely focused on the plant ayahuasca. But the group says psilocybin is another treatment option that’s shown promise in mitigating symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In Oregon and across the country there has been a big decriminalization movement, there’s been a big push to do similar to what we’re doing but also allow for access within the U.S. because there’s a lot of people that understand the power and the efficacy of these treatments,” Jesse Gould, founder of the organization, told Marijuana Moment.
“Within Oregon, there is this historic opportunity where they’re trying to create licensed and regulated psilocybin and therapy—and there’s a lot of veterans in Oregon—so just having that availability of it in a place that they can rely on, that they know it’s safe, is a tremendous value to the veterans in Oregon,” he said. “I think it will also be a model for other states and other localities to adopt it.”
Again, the ad doesn’t explicitly promote the psilocybin legalization initiative that will appear on Oregon’s November ballot—but there has been a strong push from a wide range of experts and advocates to pass the historic measure. The Oregon Democratic Party also formally endorsed the psychedelic therapy proposal earlier this month.
“Oregonians are suffering from the most severe mental health crisis in the country,” Sam Chapman, campaign manager for the psilocybin measure, told Marijuana Moment. “We know that if we want to help terminally ill cancer patients, veterans, and so many others who are struggling to combat depression and anxiety due to COVID, we need a licensed and regulated system that people can trust.”
But while these developments could help bolster the campaign, there’s also been surprising dissent from certain psychedelics reform advocates who argue that the proposed legal therapeutic model for psilocybin would threaten equitable access to entheogens.
Decriminalize Nature (DN), the group advancing a localized psychedelics decriminalization movement across the country, is urging Oregonians to vote “no” on the initiative.
“M109 threatens equitable access by not ending the prohibition of personal use and establishing supremecy [sic],” DN said in a tweet.
DN groups in OR are taking a No position on the Oregon Psilocybin Service measure. M109 threatens equitable access by not ending the prohibition of personal use and establishing supremecy. Therefore, in solidarity with our local groups in Oregon, we share this with our DN network https://t.co/Q8cqJF7iPh
— Decriminalize Nature (@DecrimNature) September 30, 2020
The group’s Portland chapter, which said earlier this year that it would pursue psychedelics decriminalization through the City Council, announced last week that it’s now against the psilocybin measure and declining to endorse a separate proposal to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs and fund treatment services that will also appear on the state’s ballot.
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Decrim Nature Oregon Groups Encourage No on M109 Oregon Psilocybin Services Measure . . DN Nature lovers, When Oregon first created it’s statewide initiative, decriminalization language was included and all signatures were accounted for. After a sizeable donation, the #Oregon Psilocybin Service measure removed the decriminalization language thereby continuing the prohibition of psilocybin mushroom gathering, growing, or having an experience in the safety of one’s own home. Negotiations broke down with the key sponsor of this initiative last week to ensure the protection of equitable access to entheogenic plants for the most vulnerable. M109 threatens this due to sections that do nothing to end the prohibition of personal use and also establishes statewide supremacy. Therefore, Decrim Nature groups in Oregon are taking a No position on the Oregon Psilocybin Service measure. In solidarity with our local groups in Oregon, we share this with our DN network.
DN Portland said they are “advocating that all people who care about ensuring access to entheogenic medicines for all people regardless of financial status, those who care about protecting these medicines from the profit motives of capital, and those who wish to see big money removed from the equation of psychedelic medicines.”
David Bronner, CEO of the soap company Dr. Bronner’s, has helped finance a slew of marijuana and psychedelics reform campaigns for years, including the psilocybin legalization initiative. Private messages that DN decided to release show the executive expressing concern about certain internal politics within the movement, including disputes between DN and the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative about including peyote within the scope of decriminalization measures.
In a blog post, he wrote that Dr. Bronner’s “is fully committed to the Decriminalize Nature (DN) movement, but have recently lost faith in its national leadership.” Regardless, “we still fully support regional DN campaigns such as DC’s effort to decriminalize plant medicines.”
In turn, DN alleged that Bronner “is resorting to divide and conquer tactics to control the Decriminalize Nature movement. ”
Under the Oregon psilocybin ballot measure, adults would be able to access the psychedelic in a medically supervised environment. There aren’t any limitations on the types of conditions that would make a patient eligible for the treatment.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) told Marijuana Moment in January that he was in favor of the psilocybin reform proposal and that he would be working to boost the campaign as the election approaches. Last month, he wrote in an email blast that passing the measure is necessary “because it tackles an important issue in our community, mental health, and it does so in an innovative and responsible way.”
The campaign behind the separate drug decriminalization and treatment funding initiative recently released its first ad urging Oregonians to support it.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.
Colorado Governor Grants Thousands Of Marijuana Pardons With New Clemency Powers
The governor of Colorado on Thursday signed an executive order granting nearly 3,000 pardons for people convicted of possession one ounce of less of marijuana.
Pursuant to a new law that he signed in June, Gov. Jared Polis (D) made the pardons on the first day the policy took effect. While the law gives him authority to grant clemency for cases of possession of up to two ounces, his office explained that he limited it to one ounce because that’s the legal possession limit under Colorado’s cannabis program.
“We are finally cleaning up some of the inequities of the past by pardoning 2,732 convictions for Coloradans who simply had an ounce of marijuana or less,” Polis said in a press release. “It’s ridiculous how being written up for smoking a joint in the 1970’s has followed some Coloradans throughout their lives and gotten in the way of their success.”
Thank you to @repjamescoleman, Sen. Julie Gonzales (@SenadoraJulie), and Sen. @VickiMarble for sponsoring this historic bill. Rep. @leslieherod and Rep. Jonathan Singer (@Singer4BoCo) were also champions of passing this legislation.
— Governor Jared Polis (@GovofCO) October 1, 2020
Convictions impacted by the governor’s action range from those that took place in 1978 though 2012.
“Too many Coloradans have been followed their entire lives by a conviction for something that is no longer a crime, and these convictions have impacted their job status, housing, and countless other areas of their lives,” he added. “Today we are taking this step toward creating a more just system and breaking down barriers to help transform people’s lives as well as coming to terms with one aspect of the past, failed policy of marijuana prohibition.”
The new law allows the governor to use his clemency power for cannabis offenses without consulting with prosecutors and judges involved in the cases, as is typically required under statute.
“For the individuals pardoned in this Executive Order, all rights of citizenship associated with the pardoned conviction are restored in full without condition,” the order states. “All civil disabilities and public sufferings associated with the pardoned conviction are removed.”
People who are eligible for the pardons don’t have to do anything to clear their own records; it’s automated, and individuals can check a website to see if they’ve been processed.
Those who have municipal marijuana convictions, or who were arrested or given a summons, don’t qualify for the pardon. The action only applies to state-level convictions.
A frequently asked questions document states that while Polis has declined for now to use the full extend of his pardon power by applying it to people with convictions of up one to two ounces, the “administration will continue to evaluate” cases that could receive clemency. A representative from the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a question from Marijuana Moment about whether plans are imminent to expand the pardon pool.
The governor’s action also calls on the state Department of Public Health to “develop a process to indicate on criminal background checks which individuals’ convictions have been pardoned pursuant to this Executive Order.”
Colorado isn’t alone in pursuing opportunities to enact marijuana-focused restorative justice policies.
In June, more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level marijuana possession in Nevada were automatically pardoned under a resolution from the governor.
Polis told Westword that beyond the practical benefits of having these records cleared, the move is “also symbolically important, because it shows that as a state and nation, we’re coming to terms with the incorrect discriminatory laws of the past that penalized people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.
Marijuana Arrests Decline Nationally For First Time In Four Years, FBI Data Shows
Marijuana arrests in the U.S. declined in 2019 for the first time in four years, a new federal report shows.
While many expected the state-level legalization movement to reduce cannabis arrests as more markets went online, that wasn’t the case in 2016, 2017 or 2018, which each saw slight upticks in marijuana busts year-over-year. But last year there was a notable dip, the data published this week shows.
There were a total of 545,601 marijuana arrests in 2019—representing 35 percent of all drug arrests—according to FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. That’s down from 663,367 the prior year and 659,700 in 2017.
Put another way, police across the country made a cannabis bust every 58 seconds on average last year. Of those arrests, 500,394 (92 percent) were for possession alone.
“A decline in cannabis related arrests is better than seeing an increase for a fourth year in a row, but the amount of these arrests is still abhorrent,” Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins told Marijuana Moment. “There is no reason to continue punishing adults for consuming a substance that is less harmful than alcohol. Arresting adult cannabis consumers has a dramatically disproportionate impact on communities of color, is a massive waste of law enforcement officials’ time and resources and does nothing to improve public health or safety.”
Overall, arrests for drug sales, manufacturing and possession amounted to 1,558,862 for the year—approximately 15 percent of all busts reported to FBI from local and state law enforcement agencies. That’s one new drug case every 20 seconds.
Before 2016, the country had seen a consistent decline in marijuana arrests for roughly a decade. It should be noted, however, that not all local police participate in the federal agency’s program, so these figures are not holistic.
Nonetheless, this data shows that American law enforcement carried out more arrests for marijuana alone than for murder, rape, robbery, burglary, fraud and embezzlement combined.
“At a time when a super-majority of Americans support marijuana legalization, law enforcement continues to harass otherwise law abiding citizens at an alarming rate,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal told Marijuana Moment. “Now is the time for the public to collectively demand that enough is enough: end prohibition and expunge the criminal records to no longer hold people back from achieving their potential.”
While there’s no solitary factor that can explain the recent downward trend in cannabis cases, there are one-off trends that could inform the data. For example, marijuana possession arrests fell almost 30 percent in Texas from 2018 to 2019, and that seems to be connected to the legalization of hemp and resulting difficulties police have had in differentiating the still-illegal version of the cannabis crop from its newly legal non-intoxicating cousin.
At the federal level, prosecutions for marijuana trafficking declined in 2019, and drug possession cases overall saw an even more dramatic decline, according to a report published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in March.
Federal prosecutions of drug-related crimes increased in 2019, but cases involving marijuana dropped by more than a quarter, according to an end-of-year report released by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in December.
A study released by the Cato Institute in 2018 found that “state-level marijuana legalization has significantly undercut marijuana smuggling.”