Veterans Affairs Still Opposes Medical Cannabis Despite Recent Bill

Lawmakers withdraw an amendment to a bill that would allow doctors within the VA to recommend medical marijuana to their patients.

iStock / Anna Altenburger

House Democrats continue to wrangle with officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs over whether and how to study the impact of cannabis on the nation’s veterans, many of whom are suffering from PTSD or other ailments that marijuana has been shown to help in the general public.

Earlier this summer the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, was forced to withdraw his amendment to a spending, or appropriations, bill that would have allowed doctors within the VA’s sprawling, nationwide medical system to recommend marijuana to their patients in the 33 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized either medicinal or recreational marijuana.

Many at the VA oppose the move, in part because of the lingering federal prohibition on marijuana, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers were able to pass the measure when the GOP was in charge in the 114th Congress, which is why Blumenauer bemoans the current hold up with Democrats now wielding the gavels in the House.

“It’s really kind of frustrating to me, because as you know this has passed the House…several times,” Rep. Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told Wikileaf. “I don’t know what’s going on with the VA and some of the appropriations staff, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it, and it’s something that we’re going to get [passed in] this Congress; I’m quite confident.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer's headshot/

Source:
Wikipedia Commons

Back in June the VA alerted lawmakers – out of the blue, according to Blumenauer and others – that its own doctors feared they could be held “professionally” and personally liable for even recommending locally legal cannabis to their patients. Blumenauer isn’t buying it, and he’s forging ahead. Now part of his push is convincing senior VA officials that medical cannabis is here to stay and will soon be legal federally.

“It will be,” Blumenauer said. “That’s why we’re going to try to get to the bottom of it. But I offered and withdrew [my amendment] just because I wanted to put down a marker – we’re not giving up – and then force people to look at it.”

That effort and other cannabis measures aimed specifically at veterans are far from dead, according to the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Mark Takano of California. He says the focus needs to remain on improving research on how medical marijuana can impact veterans, which he hopes to see passed when Congress returns after its August recess this fall.

“Yeah, we’re going to try. I think there’s consensus around the research,” Takano told Wikileaf. “We need to do this. But we had this sense there was better ways to do it.” 

Takano says that’s why Democratic leaders agreed to slow the momentum for measures like these down this summer.

“Yeah, let’s pause it. We don’t want to pause too long. There’s frustration because the VA doesn’t want to do it. But we want to to get it so that the VA will do something, will do it and will be enthused about doing it,” Takano said. 

Mark Takano Congress Headshot

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Takano argues it wasn’t a matter of being able to pass measures focused on veterans, including bills that would force the VA to conduct its own studies of marijuana’s impact on veterans.

“I could muscle it through. I have the votes. We already have a Republican on the bill. And there’s a number of members on the Republican side who are moving on this issue,” Takano said. “I want a bill that comes out of here that is unanimous and the Senate is likely to just go, ‘Okay.’”  

Democratic leaders like Takano also hit the pause button because they heard complaints from the scientific and medical communities that some measures aimed at veterans would have put experts in a tight spot because some lawmakers included mandates in their bills as to how cannabis would be studied by experts at the VA.

That’s why the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, and Takano are hoping to host private roundtables with experts on the best way forward.

Roe says he’d like “to create a center of excellence to look at studies but require [the] VA to do it.”

“Don’t just say, ‘Hey you can, you know, if you feel good, you ought to do it. You have to go ahead and do it.’ But to get the right studies,” Roe told Wikileaf. “My problem with some of the legislation was how prescriptive it was. In other words, we shouldn’t be telling the scientist how to set up a medical study. That’s not our job. Our job is to provide the resources and the encouragement to do it.” 

Close up of army soldier being consoled while talking with doctors at clinic.

iStock / Drazen-Zigic

And Roe maintains his fellow Republicans are no longer the roadblocks they once were on all things cannabis, especially when it comes to veterans.  

“Actually it gained steam,” Roe said. “Why don’t we do it right on the front end, set up a mechanism and maybe it can be an example for the whole government about how to do something, about how to take an issue this important and really do good science on it? So…we just took a step back.” And Takano is on board.

“I was impressed with the dialogue that was going back and forth. I think Roe was sincere about wanting to move forward on this bill,” Takano says. “So we’re going to call a roundtable together. It’s probably going to be outside the view of the press, but we’ll call experts together, we’re going to get the VA in the room and the members and then try to come up with a consensus.”   

Even with members of the Cannabis Caucus feeling blindsided by the VA – and even their own Democratic leaders – this summer, they point to other marijuana measures that have passed, like one to protect locally legal marijuana businesses at the state level, or others that are picking up cosponsors, and they predict this 116th Congress is going to continue to make history on cannabis reforms. 

“I mean we’ve had tremendous momentum,” Blumenauer said. “I mean, I think we’re in great shape for the next few months.”

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