Well that was close! In a Thursday vote, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly rejected a budget amendment that would have permitted Veterans Administration (VA) doctors to speak about cannabis with the veterans they serve. Under a standing directive (VHA DIRECTIVE 2011-004), VA medical providers are currently prohibited “from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a Veteran’s participation in a State marijuana program.” Beyond that, if a veteran participates in legal state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs and admits as much to their VA doctor, said doctor is required to rat them out. From the directive:
[I]f a patient reports participation in a State marijuana program to a member of the clinical staff, that information is [to be] entered into the “non-VA medication section” of the patient’s electronic medical record following established medical facility procedures for recording non-VA medication use.
This effectively prevents any honest cannabis-related conversation from happening in a VA hospital or with a VA provider. If a doctor can’t recommend medical marijuana, and a veteran can’t admit to marijuana use (the directive sternly reminds its readers that “State laws authorizing the use of Schedule I drugs, such as marijuana, even when characterized as medicine, are contrary to Federal law.”), there is no conversation to be had.
U.S. House Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) set out to change that when he reintroduced his Veterans Equal Access Amendment during the “open” amendment process of the 2016 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The bill, which was narrowly defeated last year in the same process consists of very simple wording: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement Veterans Health Administration directive 2011-004 regarding ‘Access to clinical programs for veterans participating in State-approved marijuana programs.'” In effect it would render useless the VA directive prohibiting these conversations in the 36 states that allow medical marijuana.
A recent editorial by Drug Policy Alliance boss Bill Piper in The Huffington Post explains just how close this bill came to becoming reality:
The House rejected a similar amendment last year. It received 195 votes (222 voted against it). Last night, 210 members of Congress voted for it, and only 213 voted against it.
That’s a 15-vote pick up — and in a Congress far more conservative than last year.
Two votes would have made a big difference. One Democrat voted no when he meant to vote yes. One Republican voted no because the amendment didn’t go far enough.
Yes, California Democrat John Garamendi told US News and World Report that he accidentally voted no: “I support medical marijuana…I misread the amendment.” And Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith thinks the amendment was too restrictive. The House basically came within one vote of passing an amendment that would have flipped VA policy on its head, allowing countless veterans access to the plant that has shown great promise in the treatment of their most painful maladies from PTSD to chronic pain.
This defeat looks to be only a minor setback for legalization advocates, though, as two major marijuana bills loom on the legislative horizon. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, introduced in the Senate by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), is focused on medical marijuana and would address the VA issue while implementing a slew of changes including reclassifying marijuana’s schedule in the Controlled Substances Act and tweaking federal banking rules that currently make it illegal for financial institutions to process money from legitimate weed sellers. The House submitted its own bipartisan version of the CARERS Act in March. The other bill is the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act introduced in the House by Republican Dana Rohrabacher. This bill extends the focus to recreational pot as well as the medical stuff. It is more straightforwardly written than CARERS and would amend the Controlled Substances Act with the following simple statement:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the provisions of this subchapter related to marihuana shall not apply to any person acting in compliance with State laws relating to the production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration, or delivery of marihuana.
Whether either or both of these bills is destined to meet the same end as the VA amendment remains to be seen. But after the GOP-led Congress last year forbade the Department of Justice from using federal money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, anything could happen.