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U.S. Senate Votes to Give Veterans Access to Medical Marijuana

Federal lawmakers are working once again to provide military veterans with hassle-free access to state medical marijuana programs.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved an amendment aimed at giving physicians employed with the Department of Veterans Affairs the freedom to recommend medical marijuana to their patients without incurring the wrath of Uncle Sam.

Although only a temporary solution to conflicting state and federal marijuana laws, the amendment to the 2017 Military Construction Appropriations bill, which was brought to the table by Senators Steve Daines and Jeff Merkley, would prevent federal funds from being used to drop the hammer on VA physicians who choose to discuss cannabis treatment with their patients. It would also prevent VA clinics from disqualifying veterans from receiving prescription drugs and other services simply for testing positive for marijuana. The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

“This measure removes unnecessary barriers to medical marijuana access for the men and women who have volunteered to serve in our armed forces,” said Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It will save veterans time and money, and it will allow them to have more open and honest discussions with their primary care providers.” 

Last year, the Senate approved a similar amendment for inclusion in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget. Unfortunately, while the provision earned the support from the full Senate back in November, Congress, ultimately, decided against including the amendment with the final version of the omnibus spending bill before shipping it off to President Obama for a signature.

In January, just as the Veterans Affairs policy on this issue was set to expire, a group of federal lawmakers fired off a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald demanding that the department’s updated course of action provide veterans with the opportunity to discuss medical marijuana with their doctors. The letter, which was signed by 21 members of Congress, said the VA’s current “policy disincentivizes doctors and patients from being honest with each other.” But the policy was never changed because new procedures have not yet been enlisted. 

As it stands, there are 23 states with medical marijuana laws on the books—24 once Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf puts his signature on a bill that was approved by both chambers of the State Legislature this week—but veterans are forbidden from participating in these programs because cannabis remains illegal under federal law. According to VA guidelines, physicians may only care for patients with treatments that have been medically and scientifically proven to be effective against the symptoms of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic pain. Although there is anecdotal evidence suggesting marijuana is efficient in combating these disorders, pot’s Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act has created a conflict that the goons on Capitol Hill cannot seem to resolve.

“Veterans should not be denied access to a medicine that can help alleviate their condition, and doctors must be able to discuss and recommend all treatments,” Michael Collins, deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, said in a statement. “They have served this country, and shouldn’t be discriminated against.” 

According to Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, the amendment has a better shot of being approved in the House this year because additional lawmakers will likely tender their support. The House version of the Military Construction Appropriations bill should be discussed sometime in May. As long as both chambers approve the amendment, the chances of it being included in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget vastly improve. 

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The policy applies to all patients and employees, and includes vape pens as well as cigarettes, cigars, and pipes.

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