A US Senate committee last week approved an amendment to a defense spending bill that would give Department of Veterans Affairs physicians the authority to prescribe medical marijuana for their patients in states that have legalized medicinal cannabis. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the amendment from Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) by a voice vote on June 22 before advancing the bill, known as the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2024.
During a hearing for the legislation, Merkley said that the amendment “simply says, in states that have a medical cannabis program, that a veteran’s doctor can talk to their veteran patient about the pros and cons of medical cannabis and fill out related paperwork should a veteran decide to participate in a state program where such paperwork is required.”
Due to the continued illegality of cannabis at the federal level, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors are prohibited from writing recommendations for their patients to use medical cannabis. And while the agency has historically resisted change that would make medical marijuana available to military vets, current VA policy does not prohibit veterans from using cannabis medicinally.
Amendment Mirrors Standalone Bill
The amendment to the appropriations bill is similar to a standalone bill from two co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer and Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL). Under their bill, VA doctors would be able to discuss the medicinal use of cannabis with their patients and write recommendations for them to use medical marijuana in states that have legalized such use. The legislation, titled the Veterans Equal Access Act, does not allow the VA to dispense cannabis, however, so veterans would be required to obtain medical marijuana at state-regulated dispensaries.
When they reintroduced the bill in March, the lawmakers said that “equal access to state-legal medical marijuana for veterans participating in VA healthcare by ending the harmful VA prohibition on doctors and healthcare providers giving opinions or recommendations on or completing forms for state-legal medical marijuana programs.”
At a press conference to promote the legislation, which was filed for the 118th Congress in March, Blumenauer said that passing the bill “isn’t just low-hanging fruit—it’s picking it up off the ground.”
“This legislation would enable the VA doctors who know veterans the best to be able to have frank conversations, give them advice and counseling,” he added. “They shouldn’t have to leave their primary care doctor out of their own pocket. Try and find somebody. It’s better to have the medical professionals that know them best. And I have no doubt when our legislation is passed that the VA will embrace it.”
Aaron Bloom, CEO of DocMJ, a medical marijuana physician practice that provides care to patients in Florida and other states, praised the veteran’s medical marijuana provisions added to the appropriations bill by the committee.
“Permitting VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans would help educate and provide relief to many suffering from service-related PTSD and chronic pain,” Bloom wrote in an email to Cannabis Now. “Our veterans deserve the right to understand their options and have access to the medicinal benefits of cannabis. This would be a game changer for providing an alternative to opioids for our veterans.”
Veterans Groups Call For Cannabis Research
In December 2022, a coalition of nearly two dozen veterans services organizations including AMVETS, DAV (Disabled American Veterans), Minority Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States wrote a letter to congressional leaders calling on them to support legislation authorizing research into medical marijuana as a treatment for ailments that affect those who have served in the military.
“For decades, many veterans have called for medicinal cannabis as an option for treating the unseen wounds of war and other injuries sustained through service,” the veteran’s service groups wrote in the letter. “Veterans and caregivers have consistently communicated their anecdotal experiences regarding how cannabis offers effective treatment in tackling some of the most pressing health concerns they face upon returning from war.”
“We remain committed to the VA’s goal of conducting research into the efficacy of medicinal cannabis as a treatment for veterans with chronic pain, PTSD, and Traumatic Brain Injuries,” the letter continues. “However, as a Schedule I drug under the [Food and Drug Administration], research into the efficacy of cannabis has been stagnant, cumbersome, and convoluted with red tape. Federal research into cannabis faces many bureaucratic hurdles that hinder researchers.”
Blumenauer said earlier this year that he had spoken with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who “acknowledged the stories that he hears from veterans and I think has greater open-mindedness” that could lead to change.
“I think the people in the VA itself are the most powerful advocates,” he said. “I just think that’s building and I think that’s why we’re going to be successful.”