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Congress just failed our nation’s veterans when it comes to medical marijuana
In the past seven days, two major developments have transpired on Capitol Hill with regard to veterans' access to medical cannabis.
First the good news: Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) made history last week with the introduction of legislation, The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, to facilitate medical cannabis access to military veterans suffering from chronic pain, PTSD and other serious medical conditions and to fund clinical trial research within the VA. This is the first bill of its kind ever introduced in the Senate.
Now the bad news: Congressional leadership yesterday rejected bi-partisan language, known as the Veterans Equal Access Amendment, in fiscal 2019 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.
Under existing federal regulations, physicians affiliated with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are prohibited from filling out the necessary paperwork required to recommend marijuana in legal medical marijuana states. The amendment would have lifted this prohibition.
The language was originally introduced in the Appropriations Committee by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and approved by a voice vote in June, followed by passage by the full Senate in an 85 to 9 vote in favor of the Act. Nonetheless, a handful of congressional leaders removed this important provision at the eleventh hour during the House/Senate reconciliation process.
At the time of the amendment's passage, Daines said "Veterans should not be discriminated against when they seek care at the VA. They deserve access to the treatment that best suits their medical needs, just like they would receive at a non-VA clinic."
The decision to strip out the Veterans Equal Access Amendment flies in the face of the horrific medical realities that our nation's heroes who are desperate to mitigate. This move thwarts the will of the majority of Americans who support medical marijuana and the 81 percent of veterans who believe that the federal government should protect its therapeutic access. Further, by not creating protections for veterans, Congress continues to view 22 percent of those who have worn the uniform as criminals.
In addition to the scientific evidence, public support roundly approves medical cannabis access. According to nationwide polling data compiled earlier this year by Quinnipiac University, 91 percent of Americans - including eight out of ten of self-identified Republican voters - "support" allowing adults to use cannabis when it is recommended by their physician.
Further, according to nationwide survey data compiled by The American Legion in 2017, 39 percent of respondents affirm that they "know a veteran" who is using the plant medicinally. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they themselves "use cannabis to treat a mental or physical condition" - such as chronic pain, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
This cowardly act by a minority of lawmakers in Congressional leadership leaves veterans without the access that is already available to ordinary citizens in the 31 states that passed medical cannabis laws.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the author of similar legislative language now pending in the House of Representatives, said "Denying veterans the care they need by the doctors they trust is shameful. The Senate passed this amendment. It has broad bipartisan support in the House. This should have been a no-brainer. Yet, Republican leadership has once again stymied progress toward fair and equal treatment for our veterans. Their continued neglect of common sense and the will of the American people is a disgrace."
Rep. and U.S. Army veteran Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said, "Our veterans put their lives on the line for our country, and many come home dealing with visible and invisible wounds. To continue limiting their access to quality healthcare through the VA is a disservice to them and the sacrifices they've made." It is time for Congress to stop neglecting a clear demand from our nation's veterans community.
Justin Strekal is the political director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to reform our nation's marijuana laws.