The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health scheduled a legislative hearing for April 30 to discuss three separate bills concerning marijuana and veterans. The subcommittee is meeting to discuss the Veterans Equal Access Act, the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act and the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act. All three bills have far-reaching impacts that would advance cannabis reform significantly in federal law.
As of April 2019, 33 states across the country permit doctors to recommend marijuana to their patients to treat certain conditions. Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, however, veterans cannot get a recommendation for medical marijuana through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That could change if either the Veterans Equal Access Act or the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act becomes law, as either would allow VA doctors to recommend marijuana to veterans, so long as the veterans live in states that permit medical marijuana use. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced the Veterans Equal Access Act, and Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) introduced the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act.
As Mr. Blumenauer observed: “For too long, our veterans have been denied access to highly effective medical marijuana treatment for conditions like chronic pain and PTSD. Medical marijuana has shown proven benefits for treating these conditions and denying our veterans access to them is shameful.”
The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act would codify into federal law an existing Veterans Affairs administrative policy that protects veterans from losing their benefits because of cannabis use in states where such use is legal under state law.
The third bill set for the hearing— the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (Cannabis Research Act), filed by Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA)—would require the VA to conduct clinical trials to determine the potential benefits of marijuana for veterans suffering from various conditions.
The Cannabis Research Act echoes a similar sentiment concerning cannabis research that a bipartisan group of lawmakers expressed in a recent letter to Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Tom Cole (R-OK), in their respective capacities as the chairwoman and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.
In the letter, Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), along with 25 colleagues wrote, “We are concerned about the Department of Education leveraging federally appropriated funds to penalize higher education institutions that are participating in the research of cannabis.”
Rep. Armstrong and his co-author Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO), together with the other signatories, therefore requested that the subcommittee include specific language in the fiscal year 2020 Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill, stating that Department of Education funding may not be withheld from universities and other higher education institutions that are participating in medial cannabis research. Other lawmakers who signed the letter include Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA), Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Don Young (R-AK).
At the hearing on Tuesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health will receive testimony from witnesses representing the VA, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Experts anticipate a full committee vote after the hearing, which would pave the way for the full chamber’s consideration of the bills.
By taking up standalone cannabis bills in an incremental fashion like this, pro-cannabis members of Congress believe that their efforts ultimately will lead to broader marijuana reform. Blumenauer, who is the co-founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, recently described the 116th Congress as “the most pro-cannabis Congress in history.”
Robert Kline is a partner at McDermott Will & Emery and a member of the firm's Cannabis Industry Group.