The U.S. Senate has taken a significant step by approving a bill that includes a groundbreaking provision allowing doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue medical marijuana recommendations to veterans residing in states with legal cannabis programs. This development sets the stage for a potential conference with the House of Representatives, which has also advanced a similar provision in its appropriations legislation.
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Senate Approves the Cannabis Amendment
Senators voted to include the cannabis provision in the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (MilConVA) measure, presented by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), as part of a “minibus” package of three appropriations bills. The vote, with a decisive 82-15 majority, signals a significant step toward providing veterans with improved access to medical marijuana.
The House had already passed its MilConVA bill a few months ago, featuring an amendment introduced by Representative Brian Mast (R-FL) and other members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. This amendment sought to grant VA doctors the authority to recommend medical cannabis to veterans.
Differing Language, Joint Resolution Required
It’s important to note that the exact language of the Senate and House proposals differs slightly. As a result, the two chambers will need to reconcile these differences in a bicameral conference committee or through negotiations between House and Senate leaders. This reconciliation process is essential before the final bill is sent to the President for potential enactment into law.
This situation resembles a similar occurrence in 2016 when both chambers included varied versions of the VA marijuana amendment in their appropriations bills, only to have the provision entirely removed from the final law.
Support for Veterans’ Access to Medical Marijuana
Senator Jeff Merkley emphasized the importance of removing barriers for veterans in accessing the care they need. He pointed out that outdated laws should not limit veterans’ doctor-patient relationships. Merkley expressed his eagerness to collaborate with colleagues from both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to make this crucial option a reality for American veterans.
Awaiting Resolution as Funding Deadline Approaches
It’s crucial to note that funding for federal agencies is set to expire on November 17, following a short-term extension approved by lawmakers in September. This underscores the urgency of reaching a resolution on the veterans’ cannabis recommendations.
The veterans’ cannabis amendment would achieve the same policy outcome as a standalone bill, the Veterans Equal Access Act, which has garnered bipartisan support in recent years. While it has passed through committees and received floor approval, the bill has yet to be enacted into law.
Challenges and Progress in VA Cannabis Policies
In August, bipartisan congressional lawmakers expressed concern over the updated VA marijuana directive, which continued to prohibit VA doctors from making medical cannabis recommendations to veterans in states with legal cannabis programs. This decision was particularly concerning given VA’s clinical guidance on PTSD, which discourages the use of medical cannabis as a treatment option.
The VA had previously updated its cannabis guidance in 2017 to encourage VA doctors to discuss veterans’ marijuana use.
Additionally, in April, Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote to advance a bill aimed at promoting VA research into the therapeutic effects of marijuana for military veterans, particularly those with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The passage of the veterans’ medical cannabis recommendations amendment in the House marked a notable achievement, as drug policy reform measures have historically faced challenges in the GOP-controlled House Rules Committee.
As the Senate and House work to reconcile their versions of the appropriations bill, the outcome of this historic veterans’ cannabis amendment hangs in the balance. Veterans and advocates remain hopeful that this essential step toward improved access to medical marijuana will become law, offering relief to those who have served our nation.