A key U.S. Senate panel voted to increase military veterans’ access to medical cannabis on Thursday.
By a bipartisan vote of 20 – 10, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) from spending money to enforce a current policy that prohibits the department’s doctors from filling out medical marijuana recommendation forms in states where the drug is legal.
The move is “an important step in restoring complete health care options for veterans,” Scott Murphy, president of Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care, told Marijuana.com in an email. “With 22 daily veteran suicides, to include self-immolation on V.A. property, and an opiate epidemic that is effecting the veteran population in higher numbers than the civilian population, it is about time our politicians caught up with the populous views of American voters and take medical cannabis seriously.”
The measure, sponsored by Sens. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), is attached to the Fiscal Year 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill, which now heads to the full Senate.
Last November, the Senate approved the 2016 version of the spending bill, with the medical cannabis language attached, but the provision was not included in the final omnibus appropriations package signed into law by President Obama in December.
The V.A. policy disallowing its doctors from recommending medical marijuana in states where it is legal actually expired on January 31 but, under the department’s procedures, the ban technically remains in effect until a new policy is enacted. Advocates expect a new policy soon, but aren’t sure what it will say.
In February 2015, a top V.A. official testified before a House committee that the department is undertaking “active discussions” about how to address the growing number of veterans who are seeking cannabis treatments.
During a brief debate prior to Thursday’s committee vote, Daines said that the current policy is a “violation of each states’ Tenth Amendment rights. It is also a violation of each veterans’ First Amendment right to talk openly with their doctor.”
Speaking in opposition, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) voiced concerns that the amendment would lead to more marijuana use. “I don’t think we have too few high veterans out there,” he said.
Last April, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated the veterans marijuana amendment by a vote of 213-210.
Advocates feel better about the chances of getting the measure approved in the House this year, for a number of reasons. Last time, one medical cannabis supporter, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), admitted that he misread the amendment and voted the wrong way. Another supporter, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) said he voted no because the measure didn’t go far enough in his view. With those two votes flipped, the amendment would have passed.
Additionally, the national conversation on medical cannabis and broader legalization has continued to shift in favor of those who support reform. For example, legislators in Pennsylvania just this week approved a bill to make their state the 24th in the nation with a comprehensive medical cannabis program. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has announced he’ll sign it into law on Sunday.
Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access call Thursday’s Senate committee vote “a victory for our veterans who need access to medical cannabis to treat chronic pain, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other conditions.”
He said advocates are “hopeful we will pick up the votes necessary in the House to overcome last year’s narrow defeat last year.”
The House is expected to consider its version of the military appropriations legislation over the next month.
In addition to the spending bill amendments, there is also standalone House legislation to change V.A. policy. The bill currently has 21 cosponsors, including seven Republicans.
The new Senate committee result is two votes stronger than when the panel approved the amendment last May by a tally of 18-12.
See below for the full roll call vote:
Cochran, Thad (MS) – NO
McConnell, Mitch (KY) – NO, by proxy
Shelby, Richard C. (AL) – NO, by proxy
Alexander, Lamar (TN) – YES
Collins, Susan M. (ME) – NO
Murkowski, Lisa (AK) – YES
Graham, Lindsey (SC) – YES by proxy
Kirk, Mark (IL) – NO
Blunt, Roy (MO) – YES
Moran, Jerry (KS) – NO
Hoeven, John (ND) – NO
Boozman, John (AR) – NO
Capito, Shelley Moore (WV) – NO
Cassidy, Bill (LA) – YES, by proxy
Lankford, James (OK) – NO
Daines, Steve (MT) – YES
Mikulski, Barbara A. (MD) – YES
Leahy, Patrick J. (VT) – YES, by proxy
Murray, Patty (WA) – YES, by proxy
Feinstein, Dianne (CA) – YES, by proxy
Durbin, Richard J. (IL) – YES, by proxy
Reed, Jack (RI) – YES, by proxy
Tester, Jon (MT) – YES
Udall, Tom (NM) – YES
Shaheen, Jeanne (NH) – YES
Merkley, Jeff (OR) – YES
Coons, Christopher A. (DE) – YES, by proxy
Schatz, Brian (HI) – YES
Baldwin, Tammy (WI) –YES, by proxy
Murphy, Christopher (CT) – YES
20 YES – 10 NO