U.S.: Senate Panel OKs Medical Marijuana For Veterans
By Steve Elliott
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted 18-12 to approve an amendment to increase military veterans' access to medical marijuana.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to the must-pass Senate version of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, if signed into law, would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from spending money to enforce a prohibition on V.A. doctors filling out medical marijuana recommendation forms in states where the drug is legal.
“This is a historic moment," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). "Passage of the amendment was the right thing to do for our veterans.
"We should not be preventing access to medicine that can help our wounded warriors deal with serious conditions, such as post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries,” Blumenauer said. “Today’s passage coupled with the narrow defeat of my amendment to the MilCon-VA appropriations bill in the House signals there is real movement and bipartisan support in reforming outdated federal marijuana policies. We are now in a good position to be able to advocate for inclusion of this policy in a final appropriations bill.”
Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) specifically prohibits its medical providers from completing forms brought by their patients seeking recommendations or opinions regarding participation in a state medical marijuana program. The Daines / Merkley amendment authorizes VA physicians and other health care providers to provide recommendations and opinions regarding the use of medical marijuana to veterans who live in medical marijuana states.
The House narrowly defeated an identical amendment -- introduced by Rep. Blumenauer -- late last month by a vote of 213-210. The House also defeated the same amendment 192-222 last year, but cannabis reformers then won five floor votes in a row on issues ranging from federal interference in medical marijuana states to industrial hemp to banking access for marijuana businesses. There will be House votes on those issues again in the coming weeks.
"While we won five votes in a row on the House floor last year, this is the first time we've ever won a vote on a positive marijuana reform measure in the Senate," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "And with polls showing that a growing majority of voters supports ending prohibition, it's safe to say it won't be the last.
"Elected officials are finally starting to wake up to the fact that endorsing marijuana reform is good politics instead of the dangerous third-rail they've long viewed it as, and that means a lot more victories are on the way soon," Angell told Hemp News.
“A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers came together and passed broadly supported marijuana policy reform," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "This is exactly how most Americans want Congress to handle this issue.
"Hopefully we are reaching a point at which it is becoming the norm, rather than the exception," Riffle said. "The pace at which support appears to be growing in the Senate is particularly encouraging.
“Doctors should never be prohibited from helping their patients obtain the best possible medical treatment," Riffle said "Many veterans are finding that medical marijuana is the most effective treatment for PTSD and other service-related medical conditions. Finally, Congress is working to remove barriers to accessing it rather than building them.”
“Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated the same as any other resident, and should be able to discuss marijuana with their doctor and use it if it’s medically necessary,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “They have served this country valiantly, so the least we can do is allow them to have full and open discussions with their doctors.”
In 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in Conant v. Walters the right of physicians to recommend medical marijuana, regardless of its illegality under federal law, as well as the right of patients to receive accurate information. The Daines / Merkley amendment supports that First Amendment right and restores a healthy doctor-patient relationship.
There are numerous federal healthcare programs besides the VA such as Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP – but only the VA prohibits physicians from discussing and recommending medical marijuana to their patients. A Medicare patient may freely discuss medical marijuana use with her doctor, while a returning veteran is denied the same right.
Studies have shown that medical marijuana can help treat post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, illnesses typically suffered by veterans. A 2014 study of people with PTSD showed a greater than 75 percent reduction in severity of symptoms when patients were using marijuana to treat their illness, compared to when they were not.