House poised to vote on bill to let VA recommend marijuana to vets, end weed prohibition

Abbie Bennett
August 31, 2020 - 12:26 pm

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has long used marijuana's position on the federal controlled substances list as a reason not to incorporate it into veterans' care.

Now, the House is poised to vote on legislation that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, effectively ending marijuana prohibition at the federal level -- though states would still get to rule on it for themselves. 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., announced over the weekend that the House plans to bring the bill to the floor after nine months of silence, and "will be voting soon" on H.R. 3884, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The exact date for the vote is still to be determined.

The legislation, though unlikely to pass the current Senate, is one of the most significant steps from Congress so far in changing federal marijuana policy. The vote in the House will be historic, even if the bill is all but dead on arrival in the Senate.

VA senior leaders have told Capitol Hill lawmakers again and again that the reason they will not allow VA physicians to recommend marijuana use for veteran patients -- even in states where it is legal -- is because of the federal prohibition. It would put doctors and VA at legal risk, they argued, as lawmaker after lawmaker and advocate after advocate questioned, pushed and promoted the drug's potential use for a variety of veterans' health concerns. VA leaders said it would take an act of Congress for things to change at the department. 

"The MORE Act decriminalized marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act," Clyburn said in an emailed announcement. "This would allow state law to determine the status of marijuana legality for each state." 

VA senior leaders, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, told Veterans Affairs lawmakers that it would take an act of Congress for them to be willing to sign off on doctors recommending the drug to vets in states where it was already legal.

The Cannabis Catch-22: What more must be done to get veterans the cannabis access they say they need?

The bill itself contains a provision specifically for veterans -- allowing VA doctors, or contracted doctors, to make recommendations to qualifying veterans who live in states where use of the drug is legal for medical purposes.

Multiple polls show a vast majority of veterans agree that medical marijuana should be legal. Most Americans overall believe marijuana in all its uses should be legal. So far, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. 

Past attempts by Congress -- even those with some bipartisan support -- have been met with opposition from VA leaders. In the Senate, some of those measures have been met with opposition from Republican leadership.

In November last year, the House Judiciary Committee took the first vote in Congress to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. The committee voted 24-10 to advance the bill, and it has not made it to the House floor until now. 

Some veterans fear their use or potential use of marijuana could jeopardize their VA benefits and lawmakers have even introduced bills to prevent exactly that. But VA says on its website that "veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use." A few bills have been filed to codify that and ensure that VA could not take benefits from veterans for their marijuana use. None have passed so far. 

Dr. Ben Kligler of the Veterans Health Administration recently told Connecting Vets that veterans can talk to their VA doctors about cannabis use and ensure use will not interact negatively with existing medications, but VA doctors cannot prescribe or recommend its use to veterans, or replace existing medication with medical marijuana. 

Marijuana use for veterans has gained some traction among lawmakers in Congress, but none of the legislation has made significant progress, and some of it has been shut out entirely, especially in the Senate. While some veterans have, anecdotally, shared that marijuana has benefitted them, including in some cases helping to prevent suicide, many lawmakers remain unconvinced, calling for more evidence-based conclusions before a decision can be made. But lawmakers also have supported other alternative treatments and therapies for vets that, in some cases, have questionable efficacy for veterans' health concerns. 

One thing both Republicans and Democrats seem able to agree on is the need for VA to study marijuana's potential uses for veterans, though some have expressed frustration with the timeline for that research. 


House committee advances bill to let VA recommend marijuana to vets, end weed prohibition

House lawmakers approve bills to expand medical marijuana for veterans

IAVA urges Congress to work toward veteran medical marijuana access in 2020

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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