Republican lawmakers have blocked a vote on a bill that would have allowed Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana as a pain treatment in states where the drug is legal.
The House Rules Committee stopped a proposed “Veterans Equal Access” amendment from moving to debate on the House floor by keeping the measure out of the House’s proposed VA funding bill for next year.
The sponsor of the House provision, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore, said he was “bitterly disappointed” that his amendment was sidelined.
“This is a subject that has gained a great deal more attention and momentum,” Blumenauer told McClatchy. “More people recognize that the VA has really failed our veterans when it has come to pain management, opioids and opioid dependency.”
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He noted that his amendment had the bipartisan support of nine Democrats and nine Republicans. “But somehow the [13 member] House Rules Committee decided it wasn’t going to allow this amendment.”
The Rules Committee’s move makes it more difficult for the provision to be approved this year, but not impossible: the Senate's fiscal 2018 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill contains a similar provision, and that means the amendment could still make it into the final bill when the two chambers meet later this year to negotiate a compromise.
The measure would have allowed VA doctors to consider medical marijuana for interested patients and complete the forms necessary to participate in state medical marijuana programs. With marijuana illegal under federal law, VA physicians and other providers are prohibited from recommending medical marijuana or filling out the needed paperwork.
Veterans still can seek treatment outside the VA but must pay out-of-pocket for care and cannabis.
Blumenauer introduced the same amendment in 2016, and the legislation enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, passing the House by a 233-189 vote. Its companion measure in the Senate also passed overwhelmingly, 89-8. But the amendment disappeared from the final version of the larger appropriations bill, stripped by the committee that met to negotiate the differences between the two.
The congressman, a founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, is hoping for a different outcome this year. “This isn’t going away. I think there’s an excellent chance it happens this Congress, as veterans become more and more outspoken about why they shouldn’t be treated like second class citizens.”
Veterans and advocacy groups have worked for years to promote medical marijuana as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and other combat-related conditions. The American Legion, the largest veterans organization with 2.4 million members, last August called for marijuana to be rescheduled as something other than a Schedule 1 drug to promote research on its use in medical treatment.
VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said in May that any decision on rescheduling marijuana would have to come from Congress but he expressed interest in it as a potential treatment if research supports it.
“If there is compelling evidence that this is helpful, I hope the people take a look at that,” Shulkin said.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced the amendment in the Senate's version of the VA spending bill. Like Blumenauer’s, Daines’ amendment would provide veterans the opportunity to access medical marijuana through the VA in states where it has been legalized. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted July 13 to include Daines’ provision in the bill by a 24-7 vote.
“Montana’s veterans have suffered under the status quo for too long,” Daines said in a prepared statement after the vote. “We are beginning to make real progress for Montana’s veterans and I look forward to continuing to make progress for them.”
Despite what they see as a setback with the House Rules Committee decision on Tuesday, veterans advocates remain hopeful that the measure eventually will pass.
“It’s confusing. So many people think this already passed last year,” said Michael Krawitz, a former Air Force staff sergeant and executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. “We were disgusted by the process (last year) but I think the Veterans Equal Access amendment will pass, and it’s almost the end of the road for us in terms of a quantifiable success.”
Veterans cannot lose their VA disability compensation or health benefits if they are found to use marijuana. Their doctors can decide, however, to reduce their access to pain medications, including opioids, if the veteran uses medical marijuana and the physician believes they may be at risk for drug interaction or dependency. The decision is made on a case-by-case basis.
Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states plus the District of Columbia, although states differ on the medical conditions for which it can be prescribed.