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Senators Seek To Legalize Medical Marijuana For Veterans And Enact Other Cannabis Reforms

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By Kyle Jaeger

Democratic senators are seeking to pass a series of marijuana reform amendments, including a proposal to legalize medical cannabis for military veterans, through a must-pass defense bill that’s set to be considered this week.

Lawmakers are aiming to attach the cannabis measures, as well as a separate GOP-sponsored amendment that would ramp up fentanyl-related enforcement while removing barriers to research for Schedule I drugs, to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

While the House under GOP control quashed more than a dozen bipartisan drug policy reform amendments that were proposed for that chamber’s version of NDAA last week, the Senate is attempting to use its bill to advance other incremental changes.

One of the new amendments, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), would allow veterans to use medical cannabis in states and territories where its legal, mirroring a standalone bill that the senator introduced in April.

It would additionally protect doctors who discuss and fill out paperwork to recommend medical marijuana for veterans. And it would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support clinical trials investigating the therapeutic effects of cannabis in the treatment of conditions such as pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that commonly afflict veterans.

“Marijuana and its compounds show promise for pain management and treating a wide-range of diseases and disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder,” the findings section of the proposal states. “Medical marijuana in States where it is legal may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”

The amendment is being cosponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), John Fetterman (D-PA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Peter Welch (D-VT). Schatz and other lawmakers have sought to attach the veterans cannabis language to earlier versions of NDAA in past years, but have never received a vote on the issue.

Another new measure that’s being sponsored by Wyden would make it so prior use of marijuana “may be relevant, but not determinative, to adjudications of the eligibility of the individual for access to classified information or the eligibility of the individual to hold a sensitive position.”

The discretionary policy change would be less far reaching than a related amendment that Rep. Robert Garcia (D-CA) tried to attach to the House version of the NDAA that would have prevented the denial of security clearances for federal jobs based solely on prior cannabis use—but was ultimately not made in order for floor consideration by the Rules Committee.

Another Senate amendment being considered this week would add the language of the full Intelligence Authorization Act to the NDAA, along with a section of that legislation that would prohibit the denial of releasing classified information to an employee at an intelligence agency like the CIA based solely on their admission of using marijuana prior to applying for security clearance.

The underlying intelligence bill was amended in committee to include the cannabis provision, which was also sponsored by Wyden.

Also, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) filed an amendment to the NDAA with language from the Halt All Lethal Trafficking of Fentanyl (HALT) Act, the House version of which advanced through the full chamber in May.

The main thrust of the proposal is to increase federal criminalization of fentanyl analogues—which drug policy reform advocates have criticized as a backwards, punitive response to the overdose crisis. But it also contains additional provisions to streamline research into Schedule I drugs like marijuana and psychedelics.

It’s currently unclear if Senate Democrats and Republicans will reach an agreement on inserting any of the amendments in the final bill—or if the GOP-controlled House would be willing to go along with them if they are ultimately attached on the Senate side.

Last week, the House Rules Committee nixed more than a dozen drug policy reform amendments to its NDAA.

The measures touched on issues like eliminating cannabis drug testing for people trying to enlist in the military, protecting federal workers from losing security clearances for marijuana, letting Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors issue medical cannabis recommendations, allowing servicemembers to use CBD or other hemp-derived products and investigating the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics.

While the amendments didn’t make it in, two marijuana and psychedelics measures were previously attached to the base text of the NDAA in the House Armed Services Committee.

Under the psychedelics measure from Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R-TX) that is part of the advancing bill, the defense secretary would be required to carry out a clinical study into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics for active duty service members with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The clinical studies would need to involve psilocybin, MDMA, ibogaine or DMT. The secretary would need to provide lawmakers with a report within one year of the enactment of the legislation with information about trial findings. A few of the proposed revisions to NDAA that were rejected in the Rules Committee sought to further amend this language.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), who is sponsoring similar standalone legislation, said last week that he wanted the Rules Committee to adopt an amendment to Luttrell’s amendment because, he said, House Armed Services Committee staff had stripped language from his measure without authorization that provided actual funding for the research and also changed it to require clinical studies, rather than clinical trials. The panel declined to follow suit, however, leaving the psychedelics amendment more hollow.

Crenshaw, alongside Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Lou Correa (D-CA) touted the psychedelics measure at a press briefing on Thursday.

Meanwhile, a cannabis amendment that had been attached to the bill in the earlier committee by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) calls for a defense department medical cannabis pilot program that would examine the health impacts of marijuana use by veterans and service members who are VA beneficiaries. To be eligible for the program, the VA participant would need to have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or anxiety, or have been prescribed pain management.

Separately, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently released a report for a spending bill that calls on VA to facilitate medical marijuana access for veterans and explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.