MMJ for Vets Amendment Passes Senate Committee, But Will it Make the Final Cut?

The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations has voted in favor of an amendment to a federal funding bill that would allow Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss and recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where MMJ is legal.

Approved 20-10, the bipartisan Veterans Equal Access Amendment to the 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill (MilCon-VA Appropriations Bill, for short) would prohibit the VA from using funds to punish physicians who recommend or even discuss medical marijuana with patients.

The amendment passed the same committee last year 18-12, as part of the 2016 version of the VA-funding bill, but ultimately failed to make it past the House of Representatives in a 210-213 defeat. Senators Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Minnesota Republican, reintroduced the bill last week.

“[It's] a violation of the 10th Amendment against states and the 1st Amendment against veterans speaking freely with their VA doctors,” Daines said of the VA's current approach during the hearing.

A 2011 VA order, VHA Directive 2011-004, prohibits its doctors from consulting with patients about medical marijuana use, forcing veterans in the states where some form of it is legal to look for alternate routes. However, other federal health-care programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, allow patients to seek treatment from state medical marijuana programs.

VHA Directive 2011-004 was set to expire on January 31, 2016, but the order remains in effect. The VA says it plans to enact a new policy, Access to Clinical Programs for Veterans Participating in State-Approved Marijuana Programs, but is waiting for "potential legislative changes which would clarify VA providers’ roles to assist Veterans who wish to participate."

Scott Murphy of Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care, a nonprofit organization for the advancement of veteran health and wellness issues, praised the committee vote but remembers how close the same amendment came last year. 

"Veterans deserve the same health-care options as our civilian counterparts. Passage of this bill will begin the process of allowing veterans to discuss the risks and benefits of medical cannabis with their doctors," he said in a statement. "It is now up to the House, and the leadership of Paul Ryan, to finally restore the constitutional rights veterans have fought so hard for."

Frequently used by veterans to treat ailments such as chronic pain and post-traumatic stress, medical marijuana was denied as a treatment option for PTSD in July by the Colorado Board of Health. A group of five Colorado PTSD patients, including veteran Matthew Kahl, have since sued the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment over the decision.

The MilCon-VA Appropriations Bill was approved 30-0 by the Senate Committee on Appropriations Last week, although a press release from the committee applauding its approval made no mention of the Veterans Equal Access Amendment or medical marijuana. The bill will now move on to the whole Senate for consideration.

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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for
Contact: Thomas Mitchell