In the wake of the election many patients have questions about the priorities of the incoming Congress. 4.4 million cannabis patients across the country are stuck under conflicting federal and state cannabis policy, with veterans comprising the largest contingent of them. Despite their numbers and influence, many veterans face considerable obstacles to legally accessing medical cannabis directly resulting from the patchwork of federal and state cannabis laws that patients have to navigate.
What bills did the 116th congress propose to advance veterans cannabis access, and what legislation might we see again when the 117th congress convenes in January? All actions on cannabis by Congress for veterans have taken a bipartisan approach, attracting significantly more Republican support than cannabis-related legislation where veterans are not involved by name. There were about half a dozen bills floated seeking to address some aspects of veterans’ access. One of these bills made it out of congressional committee, a first for veteran cannabis access at the federal level.
By far the most promising prospect so far has been HR 712 – the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019, which was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee in March, and maintains 105 cosponsors – nine of whom are Republicans. Passage of the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research act would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to conduct clinical trials on medicinal effectiveness of cannabis in treating chronic pain, PTSD, sleep quality, spasticity, agitation, and improving general quality of life. There will also be studies measuring success reducing dependence on alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines. Under the bill the VA will also be directed to evaluate the effects of cannabis on pulmonary function, cardiovascular events, cancers, motor vehicle accidents, mania, psychosis, cognitive abilities, and cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. The trials will be conducted with both flower and various forms of extracts in a variety of consumption methods.
Another piece of veterans cannabis legislation introduced during this legislative session is HR 1647 – the Veterans Equal Access Act, which offers to clear some of the regulatory red tape that VA healthcare providers face. If passed the bill would allow VA doctors to recommend cannabis to their patients regardless of the status of cannabis on the Controlled Substances Act. This is important because many veterans do not have a doctor outside of the VA as they rely on it for their healthcare. With their hands tied by federal regulations, VA doctors are unable to provide their patients recommendations for medical cannabis. While the bill was approved by the Veterans Affairs Committee in March and maintains bipartisan cosponsorship, the measure has only 21 cosponsors in total and is unlikely to advance further before this legislative session ends in December.
While it is still unclear whether or not veterans cannabis legislation will receive House floor consideration before Congress adjourns for the year, it is clear that congressional support exists on both sides of the aisle to expand research on cannabis applications to veteran health conditions and remove obstacles to access and treatment. As such, patients can expect that ASA will be working closely with congressional allies and coalition partners to advance support and consideration of important legislation like HR 712 and HR 1647 in the new congressional session. For more information on veteran policy issues and ways to engage with ASA in supporting them, please check out ASA’s Veterans and Medical Cannabis Roundtable Discussion that took place on November 10, 2020.