In historic vote, House passes bill to let VA recommend marijuana to vets, decriminalize weed

Photo credit Getty Images

House lawmakers on Friday took a historic vote, passing legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to incorporate it into veterans' care in states where it is legal.

House lawmakers passed the bill 228-164. The vote fell largely along party lines, with a few exceptions. Six Democrats voted against the bill (Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, Chris Pappas of New Hampshire, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Collin Peterson of Minnesota) and five Republicans voted for it (Reps. Matt Gaetz and Brian Mast of Florida, Tom McClintock of California, Denver Riggleman of Virginia and Don Young of Alaska).

VA has long used marijuana's position on the federal controlled substances list as a reason not to incorporate it into veterans' care.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, would remove federal penalties on marijuana and erase nonviolent marijuana-related criminal records -- allowing states to continue to take the lead on prohibition or legalization themselves. As of December, 36 states and Washington, D.C. allow medical cannabis access and 15 states plus D.C. have legalized use by adults.

The legislation, though almost certainly dead on arrival in the Senate, is one of the most significant steps from Congress so far in changing federal marijuana policy. With few legislative days left on the calendar, lawmakers will have to reintroduce the bill and begin the process all over again during the next session of Congress, beginning in January 2021.

The bill, if passed into law, would include studying cannabis use to treat veterans' physical and mental health conditions, allow patients to travel across state lines with their medication and decriminalize the drug at the federal level.

VA senior leaders have told Capitol Hill lawmakers again and again that the reason they will not allow VA physicians to recommend marijuana use for veteran patients -- even in states where it is legal -- is because of the federal prohibition. It would put doctors and VA at legal risk, they argued, as lawmaker after lawmaker and advocate after advocate questioned, pushed and promoted the drug's potential use for a variety of veterans' health concerns. VA leaders said it would take an act of Congress for things to change at the department. 

VA senior leaders, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, told Veterans Affairs lawmakers that it would take an act of Congress for them to be willing to sign off on doctors recommending the drug to vets in states where it was already legal.

The Cannabis Catch-22: What more must be done to get veterans the cannabis access they say they need?

The bill itself contains a provision specifically for veterans -- allowing VA doctors, or contracted doctors, to make recommendations to qualifying veterans who live in states where use of the drug is legal for medical purposes.

Some veterans fear their use or potential use of marijuana could jeopardize their VA benefits and lawmakers have even introduced bills to prevent exactly that. But VA says on its website that "veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use." Lawmakers have filed a few bills to codify that and ensure that VA could not take benefits from veterans for their marijuana use. None have passed so far.

Dr. Ben Kligler of the Veterans Health Administration told Connecting Vets previously that veterans can talk to their VA doctors about cannabis use and ensure use will not interact negatively with existing medications, but VA doctors cannot prescribe or recommend its use to veterans, or replace existing medication with medical marijuana.

While Friday's vote may not be the step needed to expand access to veterans, the 2020 election may prove more effective.

As of Election Night, 15 states had legalized adult use of cannabis in some form, representing about a third of the U.S. population, including millions of veterans. Those wins could make things easier for some veterans and could add pressure at the federal level.

Multiple polls show a vast majority of veterans agree that medical marijuana should be legal. Most Americans overall believe marijuana in all its uses should be legal.

According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America 2019 member survey, at least 75% of veterans who responded said they're interested in using cannabis or cannabinoid products if available, 88% supported additional research and 84% believe VA should drive that research. Wounded Warrior Project's 2019 survey found that nearly 17% of veterans who responded said they used marijuana in the last year for medical reasons.

“The MORE Act is a signal to medical cannabis patients that their voices have finally been heard at the national level in Congress,” Debbie Churgai, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, said Friday, adding that there are more than 5 million registered cannabis patients in the United Sates and millions of non-registered adult-use patients.

"This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally prohibited substance and sought to close the rapidly widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies," said NORML Political Director Justin Strekal. "We expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations -- arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”

NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said the vote means House members have "set the stage for a much-needed legislative showdown in 2021."

Past attempts by Congress to expand veterans' access -- even those with some bipartisan support -- have been met with opposition from VA leaders. In the Senate, some of those measures have been met with opposition from Republican leadership.

In November last year, the House Judiciary Committee took the first vote in Congress to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. The committee voted 24-10 to advance the bill, and it had not made it to the House floor until now.

Marijuana use for veterans has gained some traction among lawmakers in Congress, but none of the legislation has made significant progress, and some of it has been shut out entirely, especially in the Senate. While some veterans have, anecdotally, shared that marijuana has benefitted them, including in some cases helping to prevent suicide, many lawmakers remain unconvinced, calling for more evidence-based conclusions before a decision can be made. But lawmakers also have supported other alternative treatments and therapies for vets that, in some cases, have questionable efficacy for veterans' health concerns. 

One thing both Republicans and Democrats seem able to agree on is the need for VA to study marijuana's potential uses for veterans, though some have expressed frustration with the timeline for that research. 

House committee advances bill to let VA recommend marijuana to vets, end weed prohibition

House lawmakers approve bills to expand medical marijuana for veterans

IAVA urges Congress to work toward veteran medical marijuana access in 2020

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett. Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.