Published January 18, 2023
By Kyle Jaeger
OG Article: here.
View our Fair Use Policy: here.
A Republican congressman has again filed a bill that’s meant to protect military veterans from losing government benefits for using medical marijuana in compliance with state law.
This is the second piece of cannabis legislation to be introduced in the 118th Congress. The measure from Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) would also codify that U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are allowed to discuss the potential risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
Steube has consistently championed this specific reform, filing versions of the “Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act” over the past several Congresses. This latest version is identical to the bill he introduced last Congress.
VA doctors are currently permitted to discuss cannabis with patients and document their usage in medical records, and those veteran patients are already shielded by agency policy from losing their benefits for marijuana use—but the bill would enshrine these policies into federal statute so they could not be administratively changed in the future.
“As a veteran, I’m committed to ensuring that veterans receive the care they deserve, and I know that sometimes that care can include medical marijuana,” Steube said in a statement to Marijuana Moment. “Receiving the appropriate treatment to address your health care needs—using products that are legal in the state in which you live—should not preclude you from your Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits.”
The version that the congressman introduced two sessions ago was more expansive, containing a notable provision that further allowed VA physicians to formally fill out written recommendations for medical marijuana.
But that language was omitted from these last two iterations, which could maintain barriers to access given that most state medical cannabis programs require a written recommendation, meaning many veterans would have to outsource their healthcare to a non-VA provider in order to qualify for legal access to marijuana.
Steube’s office previously told Marijuana Moment that the omission was necessary in order to advance an earlier version through a House committee in 2020 as an amendment to another bill.
While the absence of language around discussing and recommending medical marijuana isn’t ideal from advocates’ perspective, the bill would still be a modest step for veterans, making it so VA could not move to deny them benefits for using cannabis in accordance with state law.
This is the second piece of marijuana reform legislation that’s been introduced so far in the new Congress. The first came from Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) and two other GOP cosponsors, whose legislation is designed to allow medical cannabis patients to purchase and possess firearms.
Meanwhile, VA is working on updating a directive that expired last month concerning military veteran participation in state-legal medical marijuana programs—and congressional lawmakers have told the department to “not interfere” in such activity.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) directive stipulates the agency’s doctors can discuss marijuana use with veteran patients and that benefits can’t be denied based solely on a patient’s participation in a medical marijuana program.
Federal courts have already determined that doctors who simply recommend medical cannabis to their patients are protected under the First Amendment, but VA’s concerns have caused uncertainty among lawmakers as to whether that protection extends to federally employed physicians.
Last month, a coalition of more than 20 veterans service organizations (VSOs) sent a letter to congressional leaders to urge the passage of the bipartisan VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act before the end of the last Congress. But that didn’t materialize.
The legislation cleared a House committee in 2021, despite the protests of VA officials who’ve argued that it’s unduly prescriptive. Earlier versions of the measure moved through committee in 2020 and 2018 as well, but they’ve yet to become enacted into law.
Separately, a large-scale defense spending bill that was enacted following bicameral negotiations last month excludes separate language from a previously House-passed version that would have authorized VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans living in states where it is legal.
A joint explanatory statement for the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) did direct the Department of Defense to examine the potential of “plant-based therapies” like cannabis and certain psychedelics for service members, however.