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Congress To Vote on Medical Marijuana for Veterans

Both chambers of Congress are expected to consider increasing military veterans’ access to medical marijuana this week.

The U.S. Senate has been debating a funding bill which contains language preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) from spending money to enforce a current policy prohibiting government doctors from filling out medical marijuana recommendation forms in states where the drug is legal. A vote on passing the measure is expected this week, and it is unlikely that any senators will offer amendments to strip the cannabis provision.

The House of Representatives is also taking up its version of the funding bill this week, which covers the V.A. and military construction for Fiscal Year 2o17. Unlike the Senate legislation, which already includes the medical marijuana provision as added by that chamber’s Appropriations Committee last month, the House measure is currently silent on cannabis. Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Joe Heck (R-NV), will offer a floor amendment to add the protections.

Last year the Senate approved the Fiscal Year 2016 version of the spending bill, with similar medical cannabis language attached, but the House narrowly defeated a move to add the amendment to its version of the legislation by a vote of 213-210. As a result, the provision was not included in the final omnibus appropriations package signed into law by President Obama in December.

Advocates feel better about the chances of getting the measure approved in the House this year, for a number of reasons. Last time, one medical cannabis supporter, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), admitted that he misread the amendment and voted the wrong way. Another supporter, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) said he voted no because the measure didn’t go far enough in his view. With those two votes flipped, the amendment would have passed.

And, momentum on medical cannabis and broader marijuana law reform issues has only increased since the House last considered the issue. Last month, for example, Pennsylvania became the 24th state in the U.S with a comprehensive medical marijuana program. This month, both chambers of the Louisiana State Legislature and the Ohio House of Representatives approved medical cannabis bills.

Under current law, military veterans have to go to separate private doctors to get medical marijuana recommendations, which can be costly and time consuming.

The V.A. policy disallowing its doctors from recommending medical marijuana in states where it is legal actually expired on January 31 but, under the department’s procedures, the ban technically remains in effect until a new policy is enacted.

Advocates expect a new announcement soon, but aren’t sure what it will say. In February 2015, a top V.A. official testified before a House committee that the department is undertaking “active discussions” about how to address the growing number of veterans who are seeking cannabis treatments.

In the Senate, a trio of Democratic senators have also submitted a separate amendment intended to spur medical cannabis research by the V.A.

The V.A., in partnership with the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder may “conduct clinical research on the potential benefits of therapeutic use of the cannabis plant by veterans,” reads the amendment offered by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Cory Booker (NJ) and Barbara Boxer (CA).

The senators want the government to look into the use of cannabis “as a treatment to achieve and maintain abstinence from opioids and heroin.” The proposal directs the secretary of veterans affairs to submit a report on efforts to expand such research within 180 days.

It is not yet clear if the amendment will receive a vote on the Senate floor.

Last week prohibitionists succeeded in getting the House Rules Committee to kill two amendments aimed at increasing government research on medical marijuana’s possible impact on opioid abuse.

Photo Courtesy of Paket.

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