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A U.S. Senate committee is scheduled to vote on a bill to promote cannabis research for military veterans this week.
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which is intended to mandate studies by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to explore the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain, is on the agenda for a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee business meeting on Thursday.
The bill is being sponsored by panel Chairman Jon Tester (D), along with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R).
If the legislation is approved it will be the first time a U.S. Senate committee has marked up a standalone marijuana reform bill.
A congressional source close to the negotiations told Marijuana Moment that a House companion version will also be introduced this week.
Key revisions from prior versions of the legislation appear to give the department significant leeway to determine for itself whether it’s capable of conducting clinical trials and, if so, how to carry them out. The significant change appears to be responsive to concerns expressed by VA officials who testified against the earlier proposals.
“The text of both the Senate and House versions of the bills is expected to be identical to maximize the possibility of passage through both chambers,” a House source told Marijuana Moment last week.
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) carried the legislation in past sessions. During the last Congress, the GOP prime sponsor was then-Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI).
There was suspicion that the Senate version’s introduction was imminent after the bill was listed on the agenda for a Veterans’ Affairs Committee business meeting that was scheduled earlier this month and then postponed.
“Our nation’s veterans deserve options when it comes to treating the wounds of war, which is why VA needs to have a better understanding of how medicinal cannabis plays a role in their healing,” Tester said in a press release about the new legislation’s introduction. “Our bipartisan bill ensures VA is listening to the growing number of veterans who find critical relief from alternative treatments like medicinal cannabis, while working to empower veterans in making safe and informed decisions about their health.”
“This is an important step in taking care of those who answered the call to duty, and I’m glad to join Senator Sullivan in this effort,” he said.
Sullivan said that we “owe it to these courageous service members, past and present, to explore and better understand new remedies for these mental health challenges that are safe and effective, treatments that could give our suffering veterans hope.”
“Medicinal cannabis is already in use by thousands of veterans across the country, but we don’t yet have the data we need to understand the potential benefits and side effects associated with this alternative therapy,” he said. “I’m glad to reintroduce this legislation with Chairman Tester, directing the VA to investigate how cannabis use can affect veterans with post-traumatic stress and chronic pain.”
The earlier legislation cleared a House committee in 2021, despite the protests of VA officials. Earlier versions of the measure moved through committee in 2020 and 2018 as well, but none were enacted into law.
The earlier versions specifically called for clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.
The legislation has been revised this Congress to include a requirement for a retroactive observation study to look into the experiences of veterans who’ve used marijuana for such treatment in the past outside of the clinical trail context.
But there’s another change that could compromise a key component of the bill.
Within 90 days of completion of an observational study on the effects of cannabis on PTSD and chronic pain, VA would be required to submit a report to Congress on whether it’s capable of carrying out the more robust clinical trials that were at the center of earlier forms of the legislation.
“The Secretary may terminate the clinical trials…if the Secretary determines that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to meet clinical guideline requirements necessary to conduct such trials or the clinical trials would create excessive risk to participant,” the bill text says.
The reason that’s important, in part, is because VA has repeatedly come out against past versions of the reform proposal, with the department suggesting that the research mandate goes too far with too many requirements. Under the new language, VA could finish the qualitative observational study and then independently decide against carrying out the clinical trial portion involving human subjects.
Other revisions in the new version include removing language that required studies to involve at least seven cannabis varieties and instead leaving that open-ended. That may help further address some of VA’s prior concerns about the measure being unduly prescriptive.
Correa had a conversation with VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans last year, and so there were some heightened expectations that the department might reverse course on the legislation—but that hasn’t happened to date.
A coalition of more than 20 veterans service organizations (VSOs) sent a letter to congressional leaders late last year to urge the passage of a marijuana and veterans research bill before the end of the last Congress. But that did not pan out.
Pat Murray, director of national legislative service for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), said that “members tell us that medicinal cannabis has helped them cope with chronic pain and other service-connected health conditions.”
“They cannot receive these services at VA because of VA’s bureaucratic hurdles. VA uses evidence-based clinical guidelines to manage other pharmacological treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and substance use disorder because medical trials have found them effective,” Murray said. “VA must expand research on the efficacy of non-traditional medical therapies, such as medicinal cannabis and other holistic approaches.”
Also, a large-scale defense spending bill that was enacted at the end of the last session excluded separate language from a previously House-passed version that would have authorized VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans living in legal states.
Advocates and stakeholders have been watching carefully for any marijuana policy moves from Capitol Hill, especially given the shift in political dynamics with Republicans taking the majority in the House while Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and several other key Democratic senators met at the beginning of the month to discuss marijuana legislation, presumably including the much-anticipated package of cannabis banking and expungements measures known as SAFE Plus.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who was part of that meeting, said in a recent interview that ongoing marijuana banking issues under prohibition amount to a “cannabis crisis,” and while he thinks there’s still a shot to enact reform, he’s emphasized the challenges of the new political reality on Capitol Hill.
The White House was asked last month where President Joe Biden stands on marijuana banking reform, and Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the ball is in Congress’s court, with no current plans for administrative action to resolve the issue.
Also last month, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) filed legislation that’s meant to protect military veterans from losing government benefits for using medical marijuana in compliance with state law. The bill would further codify that VA doctors are allowed to discuss the potential risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
The congressman separately refiled legislation to move marijuana from Schedule I to the less restrictive Schedule III under federal law.
Biden has voiced support for both rescheduling and marijuana research. He also signed a marijuana research bill into law in December, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.
Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) and two other GOP cosponsors filed the first piece of cannabis legislation for the 118th Congress. It’s designed to allow medical cannabis patients to purchase and possess firearms.