A bi-partisan duo of congressmen from Massachusetts and Florida will co-sponsor a trio of bills that, together, would help make the Department of Veterans Affairs more responsive to veterans who use and are interested in seeking medical cannabis treatments. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a Democrat and former Marine Corps office who fought in Iraq, and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz will introduce the bills in the next legislative session, Moulton announced Wednesday.
Despite numerous previous efforts to pass legislation that would grant veterans access to medical cannabis treatments through the VA, the Republican-led House has blocked any significant progress on the issue. There were signs, in mid-2017, that Congress would pass a bill allowing VA doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations for states with legal medical use. For the first time, the amendment made it out of committee. But a House committee blocked it weeks later, sidelining the legislation entirely.
In response to the legislative failures, veterans sought alternatives, often at high cost. Veterans who disclosed their medical cannabis use to their VA doctors risked losing out on prescription medication and other benefits they earned for their years of military service. Veterans organizations are becoming increasingly vocal about their overwhelming support for marijuana legalization. The momentum led to another push, in late 2017, by House Democrats. The effort led to a small change in VA policy that freed doctors to discuss medical cannabis treatments with patients. But doctors still could not make recommendations.
But it would take almost another year for Senate Democrats to introduce another bill. This time, the “Safe Harbor” bill aimed to shield veterans who legally obtain and use medical cannabis in their state of residence from any penalties or federal prosecution. It also made another attempt to free VA doctors to make recommendations. Currently, HR 1820, the Veterans Equal Access Act, has only been introduced.
In the first place, one of the bills Moulton and Gaetz will propose would make it official policy that veterans can freely discuss medical cannabis treatments with their doctor without repercussions. If passed, the bill would require VA doctors to discuss medical cannabis alternative treatments with their patients. Finally, this proposal would make it clear that consuming cannabis legally won’t result in a veteran losing their federal benefits.
A second measure would compel the VA to collect comprehensive data about veterans’ use of cannabis for medical reasons. Little is known about veterans cannabis use, despite a recent survey that found 1 out of every 5 veterans treat some condition with cannabis. This proposal would make sure the VA learns what conditions veterans treat with medical cannabis.
The third and final proposal would direct funds to the VA so that it could form partnerships with medical schools that provide courses on medical cannabis. The aim here would be to educate VA healthcare providers about the medical uses of cannabis and the research behind them.
Already, all three proposals have received endorsements from drug policy advocacy groups, including NORML, as well as the National Cannabis Industry Association. During his announcement, Moutlon said lawmakers “have an obligation” to ensure veterans receive the best health care. And he described the three legislative proposals as important first steps toward incorporating cannabis into veterans healthcare services.
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