Editor's note: This story first published at 12:54 p.m. May 19
Congress on Thursday gave veterans the right to discuss medical marijuana as a treatment option with their Veterans Affairs doctors in states where it is legal.
The House and Senate approved bills that include amendments forcing VA to lift restrictions that prohibit doctors from talking about medical marijuana or recommending it to their veteran patients.
The legislation, tacked onto bills funding military construction and VA, prohibit the department from using funds to enforce the VA's policy that limits doctors from recommending medical marijuana.
The House voted 233-189 on the amendment offered by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., on Thursday morning; the House later approved the full legislation in a 295-129 vote. The Senate voted 89-8 to approve its own version of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill.
"The death rate from opioids among VA health care is nearly double the national average," Blumenauer said in debate over his amendment. "From what I hear from veterans is that medical marijuana has helped them deal with pain and PTSD, particularly as an alternative to opioids."
The Senate amendment was sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
"Today's Senate and House passage is an encouraging step forward. Bottom-line - when veterans walk into a VA facility and talk with their doctor they should be able to discuss all options available to them," Daines told Military Times.
While the measure allows VA doctors to discuss marijuana and complete the needed paperwork for state-sponsored medical marijuana programs, it does not allow VA to provide medical marijuana for patients or cover prescription cost.
A number of lawmakers opposed the initiatives, saying Congress should not weigh in on the issue without input from the medical community and Food and Drug Administration.
"I'm uncomfortable in trying to dictate policy on medical marijuana without input from the FDA and National Institutes of Health," Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., said.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 17 states have laws allowing physicians to prescribe oils derived from marijuana plants.
In 14 states, post-traumatic stress disorder is an approved condition for medical marijuana.
The VA recommends its physicians use "evidence-based" practices — therapies proved by scientific research to be effective — to treat mental and physical health conditions such as PTSD, depression and pain.
There has been no research in the U.S. on the effectiveness of medical marijuana for relieving symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions, although some veterans groups and marijuana legalization advocates say it helps relieve symptoms of combat-related PTSD and anxiety.
The two bills will need to be reconciled and signed into law for the provision to go into effect.
Shortly after the vote, however, medical marijuana advocacy groups praised the moves and said they look forward to full passage.
"It's looking like this could finally be the year the federal government stops making veterans jump through costly time-consuming hoops just to get legal access to medical marijuana," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "There is absolutely no reason the VA should be preventing its doctors from helping veterans who served our country find relief with medical marijuana."
Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org