Published April 19, 2023 Kyle Jaeger
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Bipartisan House and Senate lawmakers are refiling bills to legalize medical marijuana for military veterans—the latest in a series of cannabis measures that have been introduced in the week leading up to the 4/20 holiday.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, introduced the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act on Tuesday with 12 cosponsors. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) is leading a companion measure filed on Wednesday.
The bill would temporarily allow veterans to legally possess and use cannabis under federal law, as recommended by doctors in accordance with state law. Physicians with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would also be allowed for the first time to issue such recommendations.
Further, the measure would authorize VA to study the therapeutic potential of marijuana for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“In 41 states and territories and Washington, D.C., doctors and their patients can use medical marijuana to manage pain or treat a wide-range of diseases and disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder—unless those doctors work for the VA and their patients are veterans,” Schatz said in a press release. “Our bill will protect veteran patients in these jurisdictions, give VA doctors the option to prescribe medical marijuana to veterans, and shed light on how medical marijuana can help address the nation’s opioid epidemic.”
Lee said that as the “proud daughter of a veteran,” she is “committed to supporting our nation’s veterans when they return from service—and that includes ensuring they have access to safe, effective pain management for conditions like PTSD or chronic pain.”
“It’s time for the federal government to catch up to the states on this issue,” she said. “If a state has legal medical marijuana programs, VA doctors should have the option to prescribe medical marijuana to veterans—period. The investment this bill makes in expanded research on ways medical marijuana can help alleviate the opioid crisis is also crucial. This bipartisan, bicameral effort will go a long way toward improving the lives of veterans across the country.”
Currently, VA allows its physicians to talk about cannabis use with veterans, but they’re prohibited from issuing recommendations that would allow them to obtain marijuana from state-legal markets.
“Marijuana and its compounds show promise for pain management and treating a wide-range of diseases and disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder,” the bill’s findings section says. “Medical marijuana in states where it is legal may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”
This latest version has been slightly revised. Whereas prior bills would have directed VA to “conduct” a study on the effects of medical cannabis use on veterans, the new measure says the department would instead need to “support clinical research” on the issue.
As previously introduced, that study section of the bill only focused research objectives on pain treatment, whereas this one includes PTSD as well. Also, the VA secretary would need to support cannabis research within 180 days of enactment, instead of two years to conduct the study as previously prescribed. A new provision mandates VA to “collaborate with other relevant federal agencies to support and facilitate” marijuana research.
The measure does contain identical provisions included in earlier versions directing VA to conduct a separate study on the “relationship between treatment programs involving medical marijuana that are approved by states, the access of veterans to such programs, and a reduction in opioid use and abuse among veterans.”
A final change from earlier versions concerns funding for VA marijuana research. Instead of including specific appropriations amounts, the new bill simply authorizes such appropriations that would then need to be later approved by Congress separately.
The measure’s original cosponsors in the House include: Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Nancy Mace (R-SC), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Troy Carter (D-LA) and others.
On the Senate side, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) are cosponsoring the legislation.
Joyce said that “there is a growing body of evidence about the beneficial uses of medical cannabis as treatment for PTSD and chronic pain, two terrible conditions that plague many of our veterans.”
“If a state has made it legal, like Ohio has, the federal government should not be preventing a VA doctor from recommending medical cannabis if they believe that treatment is right for their patient,” he said. “As the son of a World War II veteran who was wounded on the battlefield, I’ve seen firsthand the many challenges our nation’s heroes face when they return home. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this important bill and will continue to do everything in my power to ensure we are providing our veterans with the care they need to overcome the wounds of war.”
The veterans bill is the fourth piece of congressional marijuana legislation to be filed in the past week leading up to the unofficial cannabis holiday 4/20. Lawmakers haven’t pegged the proposals to the occasion in their press releases, but it’s been a common legislative theme in recent years to introduce marijuana bills around this time of year.
On Tuesday, Joyce and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) refiled the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act to incentivize state and local cannabis expungements with federally funded grants.
The day prior, Blumenauer and other Cannabis Caucus members introduced legislation to amend an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code known as 280E in a way that would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to finally take federal tax deductions that are available to companies in other industries.
Last week, Joyce and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) filed a measure designed to prepare the federal government for marijuana legalization, directing the attorney general to form a commission to study and make recommendations about regulating cannabis in a way similar to alcohol.
On the Senate side, Schumer and colleagues have held early meetings with bipartisan members this session after failing to advance the so-called SAFE Plus package of marijuana expungement and banking reform legislation last year.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said last week that he believes marijuana “compromise legislation” could be enacted along bipartisan lines this session.