GOP Senators Kill Veterans Cannabis Research Bill

A bipartisan bill directing the VA to conduct research into the medical potential of cannabis for military veterans was blocked from advancing by a procedural vote in the U.S. Senate.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted this week to block a bill that would have directed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct research into cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a procedural vote on Wednesday, the Senate declined to advance the Veterans Affairs Medicinal Cannabis Research Bill (S. 326) with a vote of 57-42, falling short of the 60 votes needed to continue debate on the measure.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Montana Democrat Senator Jon Tester earlier this year with co-sponsorship by Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska. In February, the bill was approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee with a vote during a closed-door session. 

Under the bill, the VA would be required to conduct a large-scale observational study that evaluates the safety and efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for PTSD and chronic pain. An identical bill (H.R. 1003) sponsored by California Democratic Representative Lou Correa is also pending in the House of Representatives, with Republican Representative Jack Bergman signed on as a co-sponsor.

The clinical study would explore the positive and negative health outcomes of cannabis use by military veterans, including whether using marijuana reduces the use of alcohol or opiates. The study would also investigate other aspects of medicinal cannabis use, including pain intensity, sleep quality, agitation, and overall quality of life. Once the study is complete, the legislation requires the VA to report back to Congress on the results and the feasibility of conducting clinical trials.

Vote Blocks New Research For Veterans’ Health

When he introduced the bill earlier this year, Tester, the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the legislation would give military veterans new choices to manage their health care.

“Our nation’s veterans deserve options when it comes to treating the wounds of war, which is why VA needs to have a better understanding of how medicinal cannabis plays a role in their healing,” he said. “Our bipartisan bill ensures VA is listening to the growing number of veterans who find critical relief from alternative treatments like medicinal cannabis, while working to empower veterans in making safe and informed decisions about their health.”

A total of 41 GOP senators voted to block the bipartisan bill, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer then changing his vote to “no” in order to keep the bill alive under the Senate’s rules. 

In a social media post, Tester wrote that “41 Senate Republicans just chose partisan political games over providing our nation’s veterans their hard-earned benefits and care. 41 Senate Republicans are telling the men and women who have defended our country that their government doesn’t value their sacrifices.”

“Not only are they blocking VA from *researching* medicinal cannabis as an alternative treatment for veterans dealing with chronic pain or PTSD—they’re blocking improvements to veterans homeownership efforts, community-based support, outreach, and more,” he continued. “It’s totally unacceptable.”

In a floor speech before the vote, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, one of the eight Republican senators who voted to advance the cannabis bill, said the measure “is an effort to make certain that veterans are not doing something that is harmful to them and to help them make an informed decision,” according to a report from the Military Times.

But the senators backing the bill on Wednesday were not enough to keep the measure moving forward. GOP Senator John Cornyn of Texas said that the decision to block the cannabis research bill came after “spirited debate” during a Senate Republican policy lunch before the vote.

Cornyn told CNN that there were concerns among GOP senators about the methodology of the clinical trial authorized by the bill because “this retrospective study would be done strictly through volunteers who would come forward and talk about their experience with marijuana and PTSD,” and “it depends on people to self-select and we don’t know how that would skew the results.”

The senator also said that Republicans were not given “assurances” that they would be given the opportunity to offer amendments to the legislation, adding that there were concerns about whether the bill would be taken up by the House of Representatives and the chamber’s GOP leadership.

Political concerns may have also been in play, with critics of advancing the bill suggesting that the potential success of the legislation could be seen as a win for Tester, an incumbent Democratic senator up for re-election in a conservative state.

Cornyn indicated that negotiation on the bill would continue and that the legislation could be revived in the Senate. He explained that Wednesday’s vote was “hitting the pause button” on the measure. Schumer described the vote to stop the bill as “regrettable,” adding that he hopes efforts to resurrect the legislation in the Senate at a later date are successful.

Jeffrey M. Zucker, president of Denver-based cannabis-focused business strategy firm Green Lion Partners and vice chair of the Marijuana Policy Project board of directors, expressed disappointment at the decision to delay action on the Veterans Affairs Medicinal Cannabis Research Bill.

“I’m deeply saddened to hear that the Senate Republicans have blocked a procedural vote to advance this bill. It’s frustrating to see how politics can prevent progress on an issue that could make a huge difference in the lives of veterans and should really have no controversy surrounding it,” Zucker wrote in an email to High Times. “However, I’m still hopeful that lawmakers can come together to pass a bill that allows research into medical cannabis and eventually allows veterans to enjoy the benefits of medical cannabis. Our veterans deserve the best care possible, and medical cannabis could provide much-needed relief to those suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, and other conditions. It’s time for our leaders to put aside their differences and do what’s right for our veterans.”

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