Military veterans have been waiting for a moment like this for years. If this bill passes, a newly accepted amendment would ensure veterans that use or want to use medical marijuana would be treated equally.
Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks during the Senate Democrats’ news conference to highlight the fifth anniversary of Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to add an amendment to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) annual spending bill that would prevent the VA from interfering with veterans’ abilities to participate in legal cannabis programs. The amendment also ensures that the VA can’t deny any services to veterans who use medical cannabis.
In short, if the bill passes, the VA will have to start treating veterans who use medical cannabis the same as any other non-cannabis using veteran.
The amendment, which was added to the “Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act” sponsored by Senator John Boozman, was proposed by Republican Senator Steve Daines and Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.
This measure is significant because it reverses a VA directive that currently prevents VA physicians from helping veterans access medical cannabis, even in states with legal programs. As Tom Angell from Marijuana Moment reports, in order for the measure to go into effect, it will need to be included in the VA’s final Fiscal Year 2019 spending bill.
“Veterans should not be discriminated against when they seek care at the VA,” said Daines in a press release. “They deserve access to the treatment that best suits their medical needs, just like they would receive at a non-VA clinic.”
The amendment ensures this by mandating that none of the funds made available to the VA by the Act could be used to “interfere with the ability of a veteran to participate in a medicinal marijuana program approved by a State…deny any services from the Department to a veteran who is participating in such a program,” or “limit or interfere with the ability of a health care provider of the Department to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms, or take steps to comply with such a program.”
The amendment does not, however, change current rules about possessing or dispensing cannabis on VA property, which would continue to be prohibited.
The next step for the Senate bill will be moving to the floor for a vote. But earlier this month, the House Rules Committee blocked a similar amendment offered on the House version of this bill by Congressman Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), who is also the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
The House Rules Committee is currently lead by the hardline cannabis opponent Chairman Pete Sessions, who has worked to prevent cannabis legislation from passing in the House for years. “By blocking this vote, Chairman Sessions has turned his back on our wounded warriors, commonsense, and the will of the American people,” said Blumenauer in a statement. “He should be ashamed.”
As Blumenauer tells Herb in an email, this equal access to medical cannabis can help preserve the lives and health of United States veterans. “The suicide rate among veterans is roughly 50 percent higher than the rate among their civilian counterparts, and the death rate from opiate overdoses among VA patients is nearly double that of the national average,” says Blumenauer. “So many of these deaths are preventable. Part of the solution is to offer our veterans alternatives to highly-addictive opioids. One alternative is medical cannabis.”
Last year, the American Legion conducted a poll and discovered that more than one in five veterans are currently using cannabis to alleviate a medical or physical condition.
However, since Blumenauer’s proposed amendment to the House version of the bill was already blocked, it remains unlikely that Daines’ amendment in the Senate version of the bill will make it onto the final legislation that ultimately becomes law.
As Justin Strekal, NORML’s Political Director points out, this amendment didn’t even make it to the final version of the VA’s Fiscal Year 2016 spending bill, despite being passed by both the House and Senate that year.