Last week, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) filed the first federal cannabis reform bill of 2021, and now he's back with a second bill to protect military veterans' right to use medical cannabis.
This new bill would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from denying federal benefits to veterans who use medical marijuana. Cannabis remains prohibited under federal law, and as such, any veteran who is caught using marijuana for any reason can lose their government benefits. The VA department has also warned its employees that they can be fired for using any form of cannabis, even if it is legal in the state where they reside.
In 2017, the VA issued a new set of guidelines protecting the benefits of veterans who use medical pot, as long as they are complying with state law. Under these new rules, VA doctors are also allowed to discuss cannabis with patients. These guidelines are not protected by law, though, and the VA department could choose to end them at any time. Steube's new bill would protect these rights by coding them into federal law, making it impossible for VA administrators to change them.
“We consistently see, on a daily basis, a denial of veteran benefits ranging from medical prescriptions to VA loans, solely because a veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program or working in the cannabis industry,” said Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, to Marijuana Moment.
Steube proposed a more comprehensive version of the same bill in 2019, but the bill never advanced out of committee. In addition to protecting veterans' benefits and allowing doctors to talk about pot, this initial version of the bill would also have allowed VA doctors to actually recommend medical cannabis to their patients. This progressive provision has been stripped from the current version of the bill, however.
Last year, the House almost passed a version of Steube’s bill, but only after a committee removed the provision allowing VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis. Carson Steelman, Steube’s communications director, told Marijuana Moment that the bill's sponsors believe it has a greater chance of passing without this provision.
“Many members had concerns regarding it so in order to move this bill swiftly this Congress, we introduced it without that portion,” Steelman explained.
Distaso applauded Steube for his continued attempts to protect veterans' access to medical pot, but added that he is “disappointed that specific language on Veterans Affairs provider-issued cannabis recommendations was removed from this bill, since these are the providers upon whom veterans rely for full, integrated treatment and care — including cannabis.”
Even without this provision, the new bill would at least make a modest step to protect veterans from being punished for their choice of medicine. Last week, Steube proposed another modest proposal that could also protect veterans and federal employees who use medical pot. This bill would reclassify cannabis as a Schedule III drug, a category reserved for drugs with proven medical use.