By Tom Angell
A powerful Congressional panel approved a proposal to increase military veterans’ access to medical marijuana on Thursday.
By a vote of 24 to 7, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment that would allow doctors in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) to recommend medical cannabis in states where it is legal.
Under a current internal V.A. administrative directive, federal policy is “to prohibit V.A. providers from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a Veteran’s participation in a State marijuana program.” That policy technically expired on January 31, 2016, but it remains in effect in practice until such time as the department institutes a new one replacing it.
The amendment approved by senators — now attached to the budget bill that funds V.A. — would prevent the department from spending any money to enforce the internal prohibition on doctor-recommended cannabis in legal states.
The committee adopted a similar amendment last year by a vote of 20 to 10, and the full House did so by a vote of 233 to 189. But the provisions were later stripped out by the conference committee that merged both chambers’ separate legislation into a final V.A. appropriations bill.
The amendment “simply allows the V.A. patients in states with medical marijuana programs to discuss that option with their V.A. doctor of physician,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), the measure’s lead sponsor said in a brief debate before the vote.
“We often talk about how our soldiers stand up for us, and we need to stand up for them,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the amendment’s co-sponsor, added.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose state’s voters strongly approved a medical cannabis ballot measure last November, voted against the veterans amendment but acknowledged, “I see where the trends are heading on this topic.”
Sen. John Boozman (R-AR) initially voted yes on the amendment during the roll call vote but then asked to switch his vote to no.
Many military veterans use marijuana to treat physical pain resulting from war wounds or to manage the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The American Legion, which represents more than 2 million veterans, endorsed rescheduling marijuana in a resolution adopted at its conference last year, and has pressured the Trump administration to support a change in cannabis’s status under federal law.
Veterans Affairs Sec. David Shulkin has made comments on a number of occasions indicating that he believes medical marijuana has the potential to help veterans but that current federal policy has erected roadblocks to research and access.
See the full Senate Appropriations Committee roll call vote on medical cannabis below.
Cochran, Thad (MS) NO
McConnell, Mitch (KY) NO, BY PROXY
Shelby, Richard C. (AL) NO, BY PROXY
Alexander, Lamar (TN) YES, BY PROXY
Collins, Susan M. (ME) YES
Murkowski, Lisa (AK) YES
Graham, Lindsey (SC) YES, BY PROXY
Blunt, Roy (MO) YES
Moran, Jerry (KS) YES
Hoeven, John (ND) YES
Boozman, John (AR) NO
Capito, Shelley Moore (WV) NO, BY PROXY
Lankford, James (OK) NO
Daines, Steve (MT) YES
Kennedy, John (LA) YES, BY PROXY
Rubio, Marco (FL) NO
Leahy, Patrick J. (VT) YES
Murray, Patty (WA) YES
Feinstein, Dianne (CA) YES, BY PROXY
Durbin, Richard J. (IL) YES, BY PROXY
Reed, Jack (RI) YES, BY PROXY
Tester, Jon (MT) YES
Udall, Tom (NM) YES
Shaheen, Jeanne (NH) YES, BY PROXY
Merkley, Jeff (OR) YES
Coons, Christopher A. (DE) YES
Schatz, Brian (HI) YES
Baldwin, Tammy (WI) YES
Murphy, Christopher (CT) YES
Manchin, Joe (WV) YES
Van Hollen, Chris (MD) YES
Written By:Tom Angell
Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.