House votes to let VA doctors recommend medical marijuana

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The House endorsed a proposal on Thursday to remove restrictions on letting doctors at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals discuss the use of medical marijuana with patients.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has repeatedly offered the measure as an amendment to an annual spending bill for the VA and military construction projects, only to see it fail narrowly each time. But it sailed through this year on a 233-189 vote.

{mosads}Last April, the House rejected Blumenauer’s amendment by a razor-thin vote of 210-213. This time, 57 Republicans joined with all but five Democrats in support.

Blumenauer noted that 24 states, along with the District of Columbia, have passed laws allowing access to medical marijuana to treat conditions including anxiety and traumatic brain injury. Fourteen of those states authorize doctors to recommend medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I think it is the right thing to do for our veterans, to be able to treat them equitably, to enable them to have access to the doctor who knows them the best, giving them better treatment and saving them money,” Blumenauer, whose home state of Oregon has legalized recreational marijuana, said as he unveiled his amendment shortly after midnight Thursday.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who was managing floor debate for Republicans, said he “reluctantly” opposed the amendment while noting that states such as his own have opened the door to medical marijuana.

“As a member of this House, I am a bit uncomfortable, however, in trying to dictate policy on marijuana without guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and other medical professionals,” Dent said.

Marijuana advocates praised Thursday’s vote as a step toward giving veterans easier access to the drug as a way of treating PTSD and chronic pain.

“It’s looking like this could finally be the year the federal government stops making veterans jump through costly, time-consuming hoops just to get legal access to medical marijuana,” Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, said in a statement. “There’s absolutely no reason the V.A. should be preventing its doctors from helping veterans who served our country find relief with medical marijuana.”

Blumenauer’s amendment was approved as part of the first 2017 spending bill to hit the House floor this year, which passed 295-129. 

The House considered multiple controversial changes to the legislation thanks to the use of a process that allows members to offer an unlimited number of amendments.

Lawmakers adopted an amendment from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) that would restrict the display of the Confederate flag in VA cemeteries. A majority of Republicans opposed it, but 84 joined all but one Democrat to push it to passage. 

But an amendment from Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) that would prohibit the use of funds for federal contracts with any company that doesn’t comply with President Obama’s executive order banning discrimination against LGBT workers failed by a single vote. GOP leaders pressured Republicans to change their votes at the last minute in order to ensure the amendment wouldn’t pass.

House Republicans opted to bring up the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs spending bill even though they haven’t reached agreement on passing a new budget resolution. The GOP remains divided over whether to adhere to last year’s bipartisan budget deal or push for lower spending limits.

The Senate has passed one 2017 spending bill so far and is in the midst of considering a package this week that would consolidate two more of the 12 annual appropriations measures.

However, the short time frame remaining for Congress to move spending bills before adjourning on July 15 for the summer means it’s unlikely both chambers can complete the appropriations process in time. As a result, lawmakers will likely turn to a stopgap measure in September to avoid a government shutdown right before the elections.

— This post was updated at 2:11 p.m.

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