Senators Approve Medical Marijuana for Veterans

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A key U.S. Senate panel voted to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis on Thursday.

By a bipartisan vote of 18 – 12, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from spending money to enforce a current policy that prohibits V.A. doctors from filling out medical marijuana recommendation forms in states where the drug is legal.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), is now attached to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill, which is expected to be considered by the full Senate as soon as next month.

Four Republicans joined all 14 of the committee’s Democrats in voting to approve the amendment (see the full roll call vote below).

In a brief debate before the vote, Merkley decried how the current V.A. policy forces many veterans who want to try medical marijuana to seek out “recommendation mills,” where patients sometimes see doctors only very briefly and don’t receive individualized, comprehensive care. Passing the amendment, he said, would let patients consider medical cannabis in consultation with “thoughtful primary care physicians within the veterans system, giving insightful advice and doing it with the best interest of veterans in mind.”

Many veterans use medical cannabis to treat the symptoms of chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, phantom limb syndrome, traumatic brain injury, cancer and other conditions.

Daines called the current national ban a “violation of each states’ Tenth Amendment rights” and a “violation of veterans’ First Amendment rights.”

Speaking in opposition to the amendment, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) cited widespread drug misuse by veterans during previous wars. “I want to make sure we’re not forcing this 60s culture onto current group of veterans,” he said. “We do not have too few veterans who are high right now. I don’t see that as a problem in our country.”

The House narrowly defeated a similar amendment late last month by a vote of 213-210. If the committee-approved language survives the Senate floor, it will likely come down to a group of top negotiators from both chambers to decide whether to include it in the final version of the legislation. Then the overall bill would need to be approved in an up-or-down vote by both chambers before being sent to President Obama.

The House also rejected the veterans amendment last year, but cannabis reformers then won five floor votes in a row on issues ranging from federal interference in medical marijuana states to industrial hemp to banking access for marijuana businesses. It is expected that the House will vote on those issues again in the coming weeks when the relevant appropriations bills come to the floor.

Thursday’s Senate committee action is the first time advocates have won a vote on a marijuana reform proposal in the chamber.

In an email to Marijuana.com, Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access called the vote “nothing short of historic for medical marijuana patients.” He praised the bipartisan group of senators for standing up “for the rights of V.A. doctors and the well being of our combat veterans who put their lives on the line for this country.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who sponsored the House version of the amendment, said in a press release that the Senate victory, combined with the fact that his effort came just three votes shy of passage, “signals there is real movement and bipartisan support in reforming outdated federal marijuana policies. We are now in a good position to be able to advocate for inclusion of this policy in a final appropriations bill.”

ROLL CALL VOTE

Republicans
Cochran, Thad (MS) – NO
McConnell, Mitch (KY) – NO, by proxy
Shelby, Richard C. (AL) – NO, by proxy
Alexander, Lamar (TN) – YES, by proxy
Collins, Susan M. (ME) – NO
Murkowski, Lisa (AK) – YES
Graham, Lindsey (SC) – NO
Kirk, Mark (IL) – NO
Blunt, Roy (MO) – NO, by proxy
Moran, Jerry (KS) – NO
Hoeven, John (ND) – NO, by proxy
Boozman, John (AR) – NO, by proxy
Capito, Shelley Moore (WV) – NO
Cassidy, Bill (LA) – YES, by proxy
Lankford, James (OK) – NO
Daines, Steve (MT) – YES

Democrats
Mikulski, Barbara A. (MD) – YES
Leahy, Patrick J. (VT) – YES, by proxy
Murray, Patty (WA) – YES, by proxy
Feinstein, Dianne (CA) – YES
Durbin, Richard J. (IL) – YES
Reed, Jack (RI) – YES, by proxy
Tester, Jon (MT) – YES
Udall, Tom (NM) – YES
Shaheen, Jeanne (NH) – YES, by proxy
Merkley, Jeff (OR) – YES
Coons, Christopher A. (DE) – YES, by proxy
Schatz, Brian (HI) – YES
Baldwin, Tammy (WI) – YES
Murphy, Christopher (CT) – YES

Final result
18 YES – 12 NO

About Author

Tom Angell covers policy and politics for Marijuana.com. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Marijuana Majority, which works to ensure that elected officials and the media treat legalization as a serious, mainstream issue. Marijuana Majority led the effort to get the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution telling the federal government to respect state marijuana laws, and orchestrated the first-ever endorsement for marijuana legalization by a U.S. Supreme Court justice (John Paul Stevens). Previously, Tom worked for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. (All organizations are listed for identification purposes only.)

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