Congress moves toward approving VA medical marijuana
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 19, 2016
WASHINGTON – A proposal allowing doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical marijuana made major advances Thursday in Congress.
The House and Senate passed annual VA budget bills allowing the doctors to discuss and advise veteran patients to use the drug in states where it is legal.
The agreement on Capitol Hill greatly increases the likelihood that the new VA rules will be passed into law later this year when lawmakers hammer out a final budget agreement. Congress was divided on the issue in its budget bills last year and the pot proposal by lawmakers in Oregon and Montana ultimately failed.
“This is an historic moment and further proof there is real movement and bipartisan support in reforming outdated federal marijuana policies,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., one of the sponsors, said in a released statement.
In the House, the proposal was passed 233-189 as an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill.
The vote could be key. The marijuana proposal was left out of the final budget passed by Congress last year after the House narrowly defeated the amendment in a 213-210 vote.
The Senate, which supported the measure last year, added it into its version of the VA budget bill during a committee hearing last month and overwhelmingly passed it as part of the appropriations bill during a floor vote.
Blumenauer said VA rules prohibit doctors from referring veterans to state-regulated medical marijuana programs, forcing those veterans out of the VA system to treat certain medical conditions.
Medical marijuana has been approved by 23 states and the District of Columbia for treatment of glaucoma, cancer, HIV and other afflictions.
Veterans are also advocating for access to marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, which might affect about 20 percent of the 1.8 million servicemembers deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the National Center for PTSD.
The VA has said it does not bar veterans who participate in the state programs from also participating in its federal pain management and substance abuse programs. However, veterans who do smoke pot for a medical condition could face treatment for drug abuse.
The department argues its hands are tied because the federal government considers marijuana an illegal drug, despite the moves to decriminalize and legalize it in various states.
The Obama administration has said it will not challenge the state laws or prosecute sellers of medical marijuana.