Veterans struggling to gain access to medical marijuana caught a major break last week at the hands of Congress.
On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate put their seal of approval on an amendment that would prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from dipping into the federal budget to stop Uncle Sam’s doctors from providing patients with recommendations to use medical marijuana.
This is the first time in American history that both chambers have seen eye to eye on an amendment of this kind—a move that stands to eliminate restrictions that have kept the men and women of the United States military from having legal access to a safer alternative to dangerous prescription drugs.
"The death rate from opioids among VA health care is nearly double the national average," Representative Earl Blumenauer, who introduced the House amendment, said prior to the vote. "From what I hear from veterans is that medical marijuana has helped them deal with pain and PTSD, particularly as an alternative to opioids."
Although cannabis advocates felt confident the amendment would make its way through the Senate once again this year, there was some concern that the House would continue to reject the measure. For the past two years, the lower chamber has prevented the amendment from going the distance—stomping it out by narrow margins. But, after some debate, House lawmakers voted 233-to-189 in favor of allowing the amendment to move forward under a larger Military Appropriations Bill.
As expected, the Senate did not waste any time supporting the amendment. Although some pot advocates argued a positive outcome was not a sure thing, by Thursday afternoon, lawmakers in the upper chamber voted 89-to-8 in favor of allowing VA doctors the ability to discuss medical marijuana as a potential treatment option.
Both chambers of Congress will now head to the negotiation table in order to reach an agreement on a solitary amendment that can be tucked inside the 2017 Military Construction Appropriations Bill. Since both the House and the Senate have approved the amendment, there is a better-than-average chance that it will be included in the final 2017 Fiscal Year budget that is slated to be signed by President Obama at the end of the year.
National marijuana advocacy groups applauded Congress for finally taking the appropriate steps to tear down the barriers that have prevented veterans all over the nation from using medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
“Prohibiting VA doctors from recommending medical marijuana does nothing to help our veterans,” Robert Capecchi, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told HIGH TIMES in an emailed statement. “Current VA policy is preventing physicians from thoroughly monitoring patients’ medication decisions and engaging in frank conversations about available treatment options. It dramatically undermines the doctor-patient relationship.”
“This measure removes unnecessary barriers to medical marijuana access for the men and women who have volunteered to serve in our armed forces,” Capecchi continued. “It will save veterans time and money, and it will allow them to have more open and honest discussions with their primary care providers.”