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U.S. Senate Approves Historic VA MMJ Bill


U.S. Senate Approves Historic VA MMJ Bill

Photo by Kurt Clark

The GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee finally approved a plan that would lift the current gag order concerning veterans and their right to access medical marijuana where it is legal.

The bill itself, a bipartisan measure that was approved by a vote of 18 to 12, made amendments to the funding that the Department of Veterans Affairs could access. The new bill, titled the Veterans Equal Access Amendment or the Daines/Merkley amendment, allows doctors to legally recommend medical cannabis as a treatment for syndromes such as post traumatic stress disorder in states where medical marijuana programs exist.

Before the bill was approved by the Senate committee, it was illegal for veterans to discuss cannabis as a viable treatment – even in states with legal medical marijuana programs. The Veterans Equal Access Amendment, sponsored by Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana and Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, is designed to fix all of these woes. Veterans will now be able to receive accurate information from their doctors regarding using medical cannabis to treat any medical conditions they may have relating to their military careers and can be legally prescribed it in states where a medical marijuana program already exists. Even if the veterans do not live in a legal state, they will at least be allowed to legally talk to their physicians about the possibility of how cannabis could help them.

“Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated the same as any other resident, and should be able to discuss marijuana with their doctor and use it if it’s medically necessary,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “They have served this country valiantly, so the least we can do is allow them to have full and open discussions with their doctors.”

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly rejected a nearly identical bill, with it failing to pass by a vote of 213-210. The vote was so close that it came down to the last few members of the House to call the final judgement. Nonetheless, it is obvious that this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the federal government and taken into some serious consideration.

The original gag order that was placed on Veterans Association physicians, titled V.H.A. Directive 2011-004, prevented them from legally filling out forms that were brought to them by their patients regarding a recommendation or even an accurate medical opinion on whether cannabis would be a good treatment option for them. Under a ruling that passed through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the case of Conant v. Walters affirmed that physicians across the U.S. have the legal right to discuss the possibility of using medical cannabis as a viable option. The case concluded that preventing physicians from discussing this with their patients was unconstitutional due to the infringement of the First Amendment and a violation of a patient’s right to accurate and available medical advice from a licensed physician.

Veterans have a number of options for federal healthcare programs that they can choose from, including, but not limited to, Medicaid, CHIP and Medicare. And while these are viable options for a veteran to choose as their federal healthcare provider, only physicians who are part of the Veterans Association were banned from discussing it with their patients.

While this is good news for veterans across the nation, the new amendment only applies to Fiscal Year 2016. However, the CARERS Act also contains language that would allow for complete access to medical marijuana to all those who qualify within a state where a legal program has been established.

“We are thrilled that Senator Daines and a majority of his committee colleagues stood up for the rights of V.A. doctors and the well-being of our combat veterans who put their lives on the line for this country,” said Mike Liszewski, ASA government affairs director. “Veterans disproportionately suffer from a number of conditions that can be effectively treated with medical marijuana, such as chronic pain, PTSD, phantom limb syndrome, traumatic brain injury and cancer from battlefield exposure to carcinogens, just to name a few.”

Overall, this is an historic moment for both the rights of our country’s veterans and the federal government. Not only will necessary patients finally have legal access to the medical marijuana that could be used to treat their ailments, but the federal government has finally moved an important piece of marijuana reform legislation forward in the Senate.

Are you a veteran that uses cannabis? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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