Bipartisan congressional lawmakers are cheering the passage of marijuana and psychedelics amendments that were included in a spending bill that was approved by the House of Representatives on Thursday.
While not every drug policy reform amendment that lawmakers proposed made it in the final legislation covering Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies (MilCon/VA), two key measures did advance.
One would allow U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to veterans, and the other would encourage research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
“This is a win for our bipartisan efforts to make it easier for veterans to access medical cannabis in state legal programs,” Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Brian Mast (R-FL), co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus who sponsored the marijuana amendment, said in a joint statement. “Our courageous veterans deserve the ability to use cannabis to treat PTSD, chronic illness and injury, or other injuries seen and unseen.”
“Time after time, data has revealed that the mortality rate from opiate overdoses among VA patients is nearly double the national average,” the four lawmakers said. “In states where patients can legally access medical cannabis to treat painful conditions, often as a less addictive alternative, the hands of VA physicians should not be tied.”
Their amendment, which was later cosponsored by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), would specifically prohibit the use of VA funds to enforce provisions of an existing directive that bars doctors from making medical cannabis recommendations to veterans.
In a separate statement on Thursday, Blumenauer said that medical cannabis “literally saves lives,” and it’s “shameful that we continue to force veterans to seek care outside of the VA to access the therapeutic potential of this source of relief.”
“Today, the House took a critically overdue step to remedy this disservice to veterans and begin to heal the impacts of the war on drugs on our nation’s veterans,” the congressman, who also recently criticized updated clinical guidance from VA and the Department of Defense that recommends against medical cannabis use, said.
Mast said that the amendment brings the country “one step closer to ensuring veterans can access every possible tool to treat the wounds of war.”
ADOPTED! The House just approved my bipartisan amendment to allow veterans to discuss medical cannabis with their doctors at the VA in states where it’s legal. We’re one step closer to ensuring veterans can access every possible tool to treat the wounds of war.
— Rep. Brian Mast (@RepBrianMast) July 27, 2023
In a blog post published after of Wednesday’s floor vote on the amendment but before final passage of the spending bill it was attached to, Mast asked, “If medical cannabis is legal in their state, why wouldn’t veterans be able to talk to their doctor about it?”
“Thankfully, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle realize that this is bad policy,” he said. “The bipartisan support for this measure is a good step forward, but we’re far from the finish line… I’ll continue to push to make sure my brothers and sisters in arms have every tool possible to treat the wounds of war.”
The provisions of the amendment were revised ahead of a Rules Committee meeting on Tuesday. It previously shared the same language as an amendment that was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last month for that chamber’s version of the spending legislation. If the House proposal hadn’t been changed, that likely would have increased its chances of being adopted into law as part of the final conference report—but now there will have to be bipartisan and bicameral discussion about which, if any, version will be enacted.
Legislation to allow VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations to patients has advanced through both chambers in recent sessions. In 2016, the House and Senate both adopted different versions of the reform in their spending bills—but neither made it into the final conference report following negotiations.
Meanwhile, Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI), founding co-chairs of the Psychedelics Advancing Therapies (PATH) Caucus, separately touted the fact that their psychedelics amendment also passed the House through the appropriations legislation this week.
“Today, the House took an important step towards fulfilling our promise to our nation’s veterans—by passing our amendment pushing the VA to research the impact of breakthrough therapies, like psychedelics, on the invisible wounds of our country’s most valiant warriors in legislation to fund the federal government that also passed today,” Correa said.
“The VA must do all it can to ensure that these potentially life-saving therapies are accessible as soon as possible, and by pushing the Department to research these therapies with this amendment, we’re making meaningful progress,” he said.
Bergman said that we “can’t afford to play politics with Veterans’ lives,” and the amendment moves VA “closer to funding psychedelic assisted therapy studies.”
“We are suffering from a mental health crisis in our Nation, and Veterans and servicemembers are right at the forefront of this struggle,” he said. “This amendment will help steer the federal government towards providing better options to help our Veterans overcome their battles, and it represents an historic leap in federally-backed research on potential cures for PTSD.”
The text of the Bergman-Correa legislation does not specifically mention psychedelics and simply simultaneously increases and decreases funding in an unrelated part of the bill, a common tactic in appropriations legislation by members who want to send a message to federal agencies about key priorities without actually altering legislative text.
Meanwhile, a report attached to the spending legislation by the House Appropriations Committee also includes a section noting that “VA has clarified that nothing in VA statutes or regulations specifically prohibits a veteran whose income is derived from state-legalized cannabis activities from obtaining a certificate of eligibility for VA home loan benefits.”
Wednesday’s votes to approve the amendments represent some of the first examples of progress on cannabis and psychedelics reform in the GOP-controlled House. There were some concerns that all modest proposals on the issue might be held up in the Rules Committee, as the panel recently blocked more than a dozen other drug policy reform amendments that were proposed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
With respect to the current MilCon/VA bill, the Rules Committee did block additional amendments that would end the practice of drug testing job applicants for marijuana at certain federal agencies and separately address VA medical marijuana issues from advancing.
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Meanwhile, Democratic senators are seeking to pass a series of marijuana reform amendments through its version of the NDAA.
One of the proposals, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), would allow veterans to use medical cannabis in states and territories where its legal, mirroring a standalone bill that the senator introduced in April.
It would additionally protect doctors who discuss and fill out paperwork to recommend medical marijuana for veterans. And it would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support clinical trials investigating the therapeutic effects of cannabis in the treatment of conditions such as pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that commonly afflict veterans.
Separately, the Senate Appropriations Committee also recently released a report for its VA spending legislation that includes language calling on the department to facilitate medical marijuana access for veterans and explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
House and Senate appropriators have also approved large-scale annual spending bills that once again include language to protect state medical cannabis programs, as well as a controversial rider to block Washington, D.C. from implementing a system of regulated marijuana sales.