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Marijuana provision stripped from Veterans Affairs funding bill

June 28, 2016 (Photo Credit: Mel Evans/AP)

This article was first published at 2:37 p.m. on June 28.

 A provision that would have made it legal for Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss medical marijuana with their patients in some states disappeared mysteriously from the final VA funding bill last week, just before the House approved the legislation by a 239-171 vote.

But the measure is not completely dead, as a failure by the Senate on Tuesday to forward the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill for a vote provides an opportunity for the marijuana provision to be put back in.

The failure in the Senate to pass a procedural vote over a dispute involving funding to fight the Zika virus means the bill can be reconsidered after the Independence Day break.

Supporters of the medical marijuana provision hope they can get the measure, which would have allowed VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana in states where it is legal, returned to and passed in the final bill.

Eleven legislators, including 10 Democrats and one Republican, on Tuesday wrote a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to reinstate the provision.

Lawmakers said the medical marijuana provision had “broad bipartisan support” and “should have been nonnegotiable.”

"We feel the failure of the conferees to include either [the House or Senate] provision is a drastic misfortune for veterans and contrary to the will of both chambers,” wrote Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and others.

Last month, a medical marijuana amendment offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., passed the House in a 233-189 vote and was voted on a second time as part of the larger Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill, passed by a 295-129 vote.

The Senate also included a similar medical marijuana measure in its version of the VA funding bill, which was approved in an 89-8 vote.

 

But on June 23, as the House Democrats’ sit-in on gun control continued into the wee hours of the morning, House Republicans brought the negotiated version of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill up for a vote.

That bill was missing a number of provisions that had been previously decided, including the medical marijuana issue as well as a ban on flying the Confederate battle flag in national cemeteries.

The House Appropriations Committee has not revealed who on the conference committee was responsible for removing either provision.

But of the eight House members who served on the panel that negotiated the bill, five had voted against Blumenauer's amendment, including Republicans Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Charles Dent of Pennsylvania, Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, Martha Roby of Alabama and David Valadao of California.

During debate on the measure in May, Dent said medical experts and the Food and Drug Administration should weigh in on the matter.

“I’m uncomfortable in trying to dictate policy on medical marijuana without input from the FDA and National Institutes of Health,” Dent said.

The letter to Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was signed by Daines, Merkley, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as well as Blumenauer and Reps. Jared Polis, D-Colo., Dina Titus, D-Nev., and Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.

 

 

Marijuana has been approved to treat some medical conditions in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Sixteen states also have passed laws that allow for medical use of compounds derived from cannabis plants.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law.

Currently, veterans who live in states where medical marijuana is legal are not barred from using it, but their VA physicians cannot recommend it or fill out the paperwork needed for a patient to receive a medical marijuana card.

A veteran who is found to use medical marijuana cannot lose his or her access to health care or disability compensation. VA doctors, however, reserve the right to decide whether to continue prescribing some medications if a veteran is found to use marijuana. 

The proposed legislation would not require the VA to cover the cost of medical marijuana for patients.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

 

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