A bipartisan package of veterans bills was blocked on the Senate floor Wednesday over Republican concerns about expanded research into medical marijuana use for veterans’ pain management and mental health relief.
The unsuccessful procedural vote is the latest setback for advocates of legal cannabis use and veterans groups who have pushed for more alternative treatments for various combat injuries.
The cannabis measure — one of five bills in the legislative package — passed out of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee with unanimous, bipartisan support in February but failed to gain the 10 Republican lawmakers needed to continue debate on the issue in the full chamber.
“This is an incredible disservice to have been done to the veterans of this country,” said committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., in regards to Wednesday’s vote. “It’s a disservice not only for that bill, but for the other four bills that were included. But that is the United States Senate at this moment in time.”
The bill would have allowed VA to implement a new research plan into medicinal cannabis, to include how its use can impact veterans overall quality of life. The clinical trials would look at not only the direct impact on specific ailments but also the effects of different forms, potencies, and methods of cannabis delivery.
It would not allow VA doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients, even in the 37 states where it is legal to use.
Department officials have said that participation in “state marijuana programs” does not affect veteran eligibility for department care or services. But advocates have noted that VA physicians are limited in discussions they can have about medical marijuana use with patients, since cannabis is still classified a Schedule I controlled substance, labeling it a chemical with the potential for high abuse risk and no clinically accepted medical use.
In a floor speech before the vote, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said the cannabis bill “is an effort to make certain that veterans are not doing something that is harmful to them and to help them make an informed decision.” He was one of the few Republicans to back advancing the package in Wednesday’s vote.
In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences found “conclusive or substantial” evidence that cannabis is helpful in treating chronic pain problems, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders. But federal research into marijuana-based products has been stalled by Food and Drug Administration rules.
Whether Senate leaders will revive the cannabis bill or the other measures in a future vote remains unclear. The other bills included in the package dealt with expanding VA caregiver services, easing VA home loans for some Native American veterans, and new grants for county veteran service offices.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.