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Congress makes another go at medical marijuana legislation for veterans

American military veterans may soon get much-needed relief from medical marijuana, thanks to lawmakers who filed the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act this week.

The proposed bill makes it legal for veterans to use medical marijuana under federal law; veterans would be able to use, possess or transport medical marijuana without federal repercussion, but would have to follow state policies. Veterans who are using medical marijuana according to state law would have safe harbor in states that have already legalized medical marijuana, and therefore not be harassed federally.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the bill is that the Department of Veterans Affairs doctors would be able to issue medical marijuana recommendations to their patients.

Bill would allow VA doctors to prescribe medical marijuana

So far, 33 states have legalized use of medical marijuana for pain management and other medical ailments, but VA doctors do not. The bill states that veterans should also have those same opportunities.

Companion bills were filed in both the House and Senate on Tuesday by Rep. Barbara Lee and Sen. Brian Schatz.

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Congress also hopes that the bill begins to shed light on medical marijuana’s potential to curb the nation’s opioid epidemic, a problem that hits veteran populations particularly hard. Veterans advocacy groups like the American Legion overwhelmingly support medical cannabis use for the veteran population, agreeing that it is a viable alternative to opioids.

In 2017, the American Legion conducted a nationwide veterans health survey and found that 92 percent of respondents support medical cannabis research and legalization of medical cannabis for treatment.

Source: American Legion

Congress says it’s time to empower veterans

Lee and Schatz say that it is time to empower veterans and their doctors to make informed decisions without political interference, and many veterans groups agree. Groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, the Veterans Medical Cannabis Association, NORML, and the National Cannabis Industry Association have all communicated support for the bill.

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The bill hits close to home for Lee, who is the daughter of a veteran. She said the critical legislation is long overdue. Attempts at introducing similar legislation in the past have not made it out of both houses. The new bills are nearly identical to the Safe Harbor legislation introduced last year by Schatz and former Florida Senator Bill Nelson. The new bill contains added provisions that protect veterans covered under medical cannabis policies of states and Indian tribes.

In a joint press release, Lee and Schatz called the current federal prohibitions on cannabis counterproductive and harmful, saying “It’s past time to end the anti-science, anti-health cannabis prohibition laws that prevent veterans’ from accessing health care.”

Yep, Congress has a cannabis caucus

In January, the Congressional Cannabis Caucus for the 116th Congress was formed by Earl Blumenauer. Members include Lee and Reps. Dave Joyce and Don Young.

Blumenauer initially founded the caucus in 2017 as a bipartisan group to collaborate on sensible federal cannabis legislation. One particular goal the group has is ensuring that the state and federal laws are in synch regarding medicinal cannabis. Young is the most senior member of the GOP, now serving his 24th Congressional term.

Lee and Joyce are both members of the House Appropriations Committee – they control the federal purse strings. Blumenauer is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which provides jurisdiction over all revenue-raising efforts like tariffs and taxes.

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One of the caucus’ main goals has been federal funding of medical cannabis research, and this new bill allocates $15 million for such research. If the Safe Harbor Act becomes law, the VA would be required to conduct medical marijuana research on chronic pain and other ailments. Research would include studies regarding medical marijuana’s potential to reduce opioid abuse.

Lee provided data to back up her reasons for introducing the bill. She says that in states with medical cannabis laws, there are 25 percent lower opioid overdose mortality rates. Lee says that with the proper research, it is worth exploring whether medical marijuana can put a dent in the opioid crisis.

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