Congressional forces took steps earlier this week to give doctors employed with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs the ability to write medical marijuana recommendations for patients living in legal states.
On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment in a vote of 24-to-7 that would include medical marijuana access for veterans as part of the 2018 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The inclusion of this rider, if met with final approval, would finally give physicians at VA hospitals in legal marijuana states all across the country the ability to incorporate cannabis medicine as part of their patient treatment programs.
The purpose of the amendment is “to prohibit the use of funds appropriated or other-wise made available under this Act to interfere with the ability of veterans to participate in medicinal marijuana programs approved by States or deny services to such veterans.”
The VA’s current policy prohibits doctors from completing the necessary paperwork to send their patients down the path to a medical marijuana dispensary. Although the rule technically expired well over a year ago, the department has yet to put together an update to replace it.
The situation has forced veterans to seek the counsel of doctors outside the VA in order to participate in their local medical marijuana programs. However, in some cases, this finagling of the system has caused veterans to lose prescription drug privileges and other important benefits covered under the VA.
The good news is the amendment, which was brought to the table by Senators Steve Daines of Montana and Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, has now been attached to the appropriations bill that pays for VA operations. As long as the measure can maintain it position inside the bill throughout the process of assembling the next federal budget, it stands a fighting chance of going the distance.
Unfortunately, both the House and Senate pushed through a similar rider last year, but it ended up being ripped from the guts of the appropriations bill by a conference committee.
Because marijuana remains an outlaw substance in the eyes of the federal government, many lawmakers do not believe it is appropriate for the VA to so much as discuss cannabis with their patients. But there is increasing evidence that medical marijuana is an effective alternative to addictive prescription painkillers and anxiety medications commonly doled out to veterans to control symptoms of PTSD and chronic pain.
Earlier this year, the American Legion, one of the most influential veterans support groups in the nation, fired off a letter to President Trump in hopes of persuading him to allow more research opportunities for the cannabis plant by removing it from its current Schedule I classification. The organization said that while it is “not asking for it to be legalized,” “there is overwhelming evidence that it has been beneficial for some vets.”
The Trump administration has yet to issue a response.
Unfortunately, even if the marijuana amendment goes the distance this year for inclusion in the Fiscal Budget 2018, the measure, similar to the medical marijuana protections known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, is only a temporary fix. It would be up to Congress to renew the rider every year in order for it to continue to hold weight.
The House is expected to approve a similar version of the rider later this year.