The U.S. House of Representatives has approved amendments to a large-scale spending bill that would allow U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to recommend medical cannabis to military veterans and promote research into substances like psilocybin and MDMA.
Just one day after the House Rules Committee made the measures in order for floor consideration, they passed on the floor on Wednesday and are advancing as part of appropriations legislation covering Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies (MilCon/VA).
The medical cannabis measure, which was filed by the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—Reps. Brian Mast (R-FL), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Barbara Lee (D-CA)—passed in a voice vote.
Their amendment, which was later cosponsored by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), would specifically prohibit the use of VA funds to enforce provisions of an existing directive that bars doctors from making medical cannabis recommendations to veterans.
Veterans face a “Department of Veterans Affairs that does not allow their primary care physicians, their post-deployment clinics, to discuss the medical treatment options,and work with them through the paperwork for those medical treatment options that are actually available in their states,” Mast said. “If they’re not working with their doctors to do that, then you have to ask yourself who is it that they would be working with to do that for medical treatment.”
Blumenauer said that “veterans in Oregon and across the country have shared powerful stories with me about how medical cannabis has saved their lives and given relief from wounds of war seen and unseen.”
“These veterans have also shared their fear about what happened if they work with the VA doctors to incorporate their cannabis use into their treatment plans. The VA denies veterans access to this care option by preventing providers from completing forms in compliance with state medical marijuana programs,” he said. “This is a shameful disservice to the men and women who put their lives on the line. The VA is forcing veterans to seek care outside the VA or self medicate. Our veterans are paying the price for Congress’s failure to act.”
Joyce also spoke in favor of the amendment, saying he’s “proud to join my colleagues in leading this common sense effort to help our country’s veterans access medical treatment.”
“I’ve seen firsthand the many challenges our nation’s heroes face when they return home,” he said. “We should all be resolved to help expand access to treatments for the medical challenges, both mental and physical, our nation’s veterans experience.”
The measure passed despite Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, joining Rep. John Carter (R-TX) in voicing opposition to it on practical grounds, arguing that it could put VA doctors in legal jeopardy if they actually fill out forms to recommend medical cannabis to veterans.
Despite their opposition, no one requested that a recorded vote be taken to challenge the measure’s passage via voice vote.
The provisions of the amendment were revised ahead of the Rules Committee meeting on Tuesday. It previously shared the same language as an amendment that was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last month for that chamber’s version of the spending legislation. If the House proposal hadn’t been changed, that likely would have increased its chances of being adopted into law as part of the final conference report—but now there will have to be bipartisan and bicameral discussion about which, if any, version will be enacted.
If medical cannabis is legal in your state, why wouldn’t you be able to talk to your doctor about it? That’s the reality for thousands of veterans who get their care through the VA.
My amendment would allow VA physicians to discuss all treatment options with their patients pic.twitter.com/GyImVcqqDc
— Rep. Brian Mast (@RepBrianMast) July 26, 2023
Legislation to allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to patients have advanced through both chambers in recent sessions. In 2016, the House and Senate both adopted different versions of the reform in their spending bills—but neither made it into the final conference report following negotiations.
Meanwhile, the House also adopted, by a voice vote, an amendment from Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) that would encourage research into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics.
“If psychedelic-assisted therapy can treat a veterans PTSD or prevent them from taking their own life, then we owe it to them to take an active role in researching these potentially life saving therapies,” Bergman said on the floor. “This amendment will unlock potential treatments that have been shown to actually cure PTSD—something current medicine and modern psychology have been unable to do—and give our veterans a chance to live a long, happy life that we all take for granted.”
No members rose to speak against the measure; instead, Correa used the allotted “opposition” time to speak in support of the proposal.
“Let’s take care of business. Let’s make sure the VA takes these studies, bring back data so that we can create a program that takes care of our veterans,” the congressman said. “Veterans have fought for our freedom. It’s time that we continue and step up to fulfill our moral obligation to take care of them as well.”
The lawmakers, who are also the founding co-chairs of a congressional psychedelics caucus that promotes research into entheogenic substances, also promoted the measure on Monday ahead of the Rules Committee meeting.
The text of the Bergman-Correa legislation does not specifically mention psychedelics and simply simultaneously increases and decreases funding in an unrelated part of the bill, a common tactic in appropriations legislation by members who want to send a message to federal agencies about key priorities without actually altering legislative text.
The summary of the proposal posted by the Rules Committee says it “increases and decreases the Medical and Prosthetic Research account at the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure the VA conducts large-scale studies into the efficacy of drugs that have FDA-designated Breakthrough Therapy status to treat post-traumatic stress disorder through VA-administered drug assisted therapy trials.”
Meanwhile, a report attached to the spending legislation by the House Appropriations Committee also includes a section noting that “VA has clarified that nothing in VA statutes or regulations specifically prohibits a veteran whose income is derived from state-legalized cannabis activities from obtaining a certificate of eligibility for VA home loan benefits.”
Wednesday’s vote to approve the amendments represents one of the first examples of progress on cannabis and psychedelics reform in the GOP-controlled House. There were some concerns that all modest proposals on the issue might be held up in the Rules Committee, as the panel recently blocked more than a dozen other drug policy reform amendments that were proposed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
With respect to the current MilCon/VA bill, the Rules panel did block additional amendments that would end the practice of drug testing job applicants for marijuana at certain federal agencies and separately address VA medical marijuana issues from advancing.
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Meanwhile, Democratic senators are seeking to pass a series of marijuana reform amendments through its version of the NDAA.
One of the proposals, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), would allow veterans to use medical cannabis in states and territories where its legal, mirroring a standalone bill that the senator introduced in April.
It would additionally protect doctors who discuss and fill out paperwork to recommend medical marijuana for veterans. And it would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support clinical trials investigating the therapeutic effects of cannabis in the treatment of conditions such as pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that commonly afflict veterans.
Separately, the Senate Appropriations Committee also recently released a report for its VA spending legislation that includes language calling on the department to facilitate medical marijuana access for veterans and explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
House and Senate appropriators have also approved large-scale annual spending bills that once again include language to protect state medical cannabis programs, as well as a controversial rider to block Washington, D.C. from implementing a system of regulated marijuana sales.
Image element courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.