On Thursday morning, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs discussed and passed two bills related to medical cannabis and veterans.
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (H.R. 712), sponsored by California Rep. Lou Correa, was approved in a 15-11 vote. The committee also approved the Veterans Equal Access Act (H.R. 1647), sponsored by Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, in a unanimous voice vote. The bills now head to the House for a floor vote.
Veterans and veterans groups have for years demanded more research on the potential benefits of medical cannabis for common conditions that veterans face, from chronic pain to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the protection to openly discuss medical cannabis with their VA doctors. Yet, because the Department of Veterans Affairs is a federal agency, veterans in states with legal medical cannabis have faced doctors who refuse to discuss medical cannabis and even some who threaten the cut off of benefits.
The American Legion published a survey in 2017 that found that an overwhelming percentage of respondents, 92%, support medical cannabis research, and 83% were in favor of federal legalization of medical cannabis.
Tennessee Rep. Phil Roe offered a replacement amendment, which was agreed to, to the research bill that would remove the “onerous restrictions that the underlying bill has about what the research must look like.”
“I’ve long supported the VA researching medical cannabis and believe that [my amendment] is a reasonable approach to ensure the research is performed and that it yields scientifically valid and actionable findings that can help illuminate the clinical benefits, if any, of cannabis on our nation’s veterans,” Roe said.
Florida Rep. Greg Steube described his amendment, which was also agreed to, that would ensure that veterans aren’t denied benefits if they’re participating in a state-legal medical cannabis program and said, “As medical advances in research continue to show the value of medicinal marijuana for managing chronic pain and other debilitating conditions, it is important to ensure that our veterans have access to these forms of treatment in states where they are legal.”
“We had situations in my state,” Steube added, “where veterans would go to the VA and were told or were denied services by way of the fact that they were taking advantage of a state-approved medical marijuana program.”
The second bill discussed, H.R. 1647, or the Veterans Equal Access Act, would require clinicians in VA medical facilities to assist veterans in their participation in state medical cannabis programs by issuing medical cannabis recommendations and filling out other necessary forms, and speaking candidly about how medical cannabis might fit into their treatment plans.
Rep. Roe, who is also a doctor, highlighted the dissonance between state laws that allow medical cannabis, and federal law that prohibits it. As federal employees, VA doctors are caught in the crosshairs.
“I fully support research regarding the safety and efficacy of marijuana on veterans and all patients, veteran or not. Until that research is performed, it would be nothing short of irresponsible to ask a physician to recommend its use to their patients,” Roe said, emphasizing that when the Department of Veterans Affairs testified about this legislation last year, the VA pointed out that “there is no provision of that act that would exempt a VA physician who assists a veteran in obtaining marijuana, even in a state where it is legal, from criminal sanctions.”
Roe proposed an amendment that would delay the implementation of the bill until cannabis is rescheduled, and the VA “certifies its clinical benefit.”
“Not only would this bill require clinicians to act in opposition to accepted medical practice, but it would also open them up to legal liabilities under federal law. It’s the ultimate catch 22. It would be irresponsible of us to move forward with this bill on either one of those grounds, much less both of them,” Roe said, adding, “I put myself in the practitioner seat in my office at a VA hospital. You put me in an incredibly untenable position by doing this.”
Committee chair and California Rep. Mark Takano opposed the amendment suggested by Roe because it would “gut the intent of this bipartisan bill” by preventing it from going into effect until cannabis is rescheduled.
“The bill does not authorize VA clinicians to prescribe, or VA to dispense, cannabis,” Takano said. “It simply allows doctors to candidly discuss treatment options with their patients and allow those patients to participate in state approved medical cannabis programs without fearing the loss of VA health care or benefits.”
Rep. Roe’s amendment was ultimately rejected.