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New Bill Would Protect Veterans from Losing Federal Benefits Over Cannabis Use

Apr 18, 2019

New Bill Would Protect Veterans from Losing Federal Benefits Over Cannabis Use

Alexander Beadle
Science Writer
@alexbeadlesci

American military veterans would be able to use state legal cannabis without putting their federal benefits at risk under a new bipartisan bill introduced to Congress last week

The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act was introduced by Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), a veteran himself, and cosponsored by Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-CA). In essence, the bill would codify the current policy of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure that veterans who use cannabis products in accordance with state law will not lose their federal benefits, despite the federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and the VA’s requirement to follow all federal laws, including those related to cannabis use. 

As well as introducing this protection into federal law, the bill also seeks to amend current VA policies that prevent the department’s physicians from assisting veterans with filling out the forms that are necessary to enroll in a state-approved medical cannabis program.


The VA and cannabis

According to the public health section of the VA’s official webpage, the continued federal prohibition of cannabis means that “VA health care providers may not recommend [cannabis] or assist Veterans to obtain it.” VA clinicians are also barred from completing the paperwork required for veteran patients to access state-approved cannabis programs.

In addition to these policies — which may be altered under the new bill — the VA clinicians are also only permitted to prescribe medications that have received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), thereby ruling out the vast majority of cannabis-derived medicines. In addition, VA pharmacies are unable to fill any prescriptions for medical marijuana, and the possession or use of cannabis remains prohibited at all VA locations and grounds. 

Despite this, the VA public health page states that “Veteran participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services,” and adds that VA healthcare providers are able to discuss a patient’s marijuana use as a part of care and treatment planning. 


Confusion over how the bill will apply 

In a press release addressing his bill, Steube explained, “as a veteran, I’m committed to ensuring that veterans receive the care they deserve, and I know that sometimes that care can include medical marijuana.”

According to a poll of US service veterans conducted by the American Legion, one in five veterans surveyed reported using cannabis at some point to alleviate a medical or a physical condition. Both veterans and caregivers also expressed strong support for federally legalizing the medicinal use of cannabis, with over 80 percent of both groups backing the potential move.

“Receiving the appropriate treatment to address your health care needs—using products that are legal in the state in which you live—should not preclude you from your Department of Veterans Affairs benefits,” Steube continued. “While it is the current policy of the VA to not deny benefits to veterans based on participation in these state-based medical marijuana programs, this bill will ensure that no future policy or administration change could put these veterans at risk of losing their benefits when they are in compliance with state law.”

But one potential source of confusion is that while the press release states that the bill will “only apply to veterans living and receiving care in states that have approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” the actual language of the draft bill never explicitly specifies whether its contents would be exclusive to medical cannabis states. 

The bill’s draft language only refers to veterans who are “participating in a state-approved marijuana program” — meaning that under a strict reading, the bill could also offer protections to those veterans who use cannabis recreationally in states where this is legal. There is a possibility that revisions could be made to this wording as the bill passes through Congress, which might then restrict the protections solely to medical cannabis programs. But it is notable that the current language of the relevant VA policy section concerning veterans and cannabis use, Veterans Health Administration Directive 1315, also includes this same ambiguous wording.


Other bills concerning cannabis use and military veterans

There are several other similar bills regarding veterans’ access to cannabis that have been introduced to Congress recently. 

One bill introduced in the House by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in early March would allow doctors with the VA to recommend medical marijuana programs to veterans. The Veterans Equal Access Act, as the bill is known, has 14 cosponsors, of which ten are Democrats and four are Republican representatives. It has been referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for further debate. 

Another similar bill, the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, would give federal protection to veterans who use medical cannabis in accordance with state-level laws, and would allow also VA physicians to recommend use of medical cannabis to their patients. 

Efforts to introduce new proposals concerning veterans’ access to medical cannabis in previous legislative sessions were repeatedly blocked by then-Representative Pete Sessions, who held a strong anti-marijuana stance during his tenure as the chairman of the House Rules Committee. After failing to win his district in the 2018 midterm elections, Sessions lost his seat in the House of Representatives. The new chairman of the Rules Committee, Democrat James P. McGovern, has said that he will not attempt to block cannabis-related amendments in the same way as his predecessor.

“I want to be more accommodating and basically empower rank-and-file members,” McGovern told the Boston Globe. “I don’t like this idea where it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ We need a more deliberative process.”

“Unlike my predecessor, I’m not going to block amendments for marijuana. Citizens are passing ballot initiatives, legislatures are passing laws, and we need to respect that. Federal laws and statutes are way behind.”

 

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