A U.S. Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill on Thursday to promote marijuana research for military veterans—becoming the first piece of standalone cannabis legislation ever to advance through a committee in the chamber.
Because the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee did not have a quorum present to act on the bill and either other veterans measures up for consideration during its scheduled morning markup meeting, members instead approved the legislation in a more informal “off the floor” session later in the day.
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, sponsored by panel Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), is intended to mandate studies by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to explore the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.
A staffer with Sullivan’s office confirmed the vote result, which was not streamed live, to Marijuana Moment.
The Senate committee development comes two days after a House companion version was filed by Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI).
The bill has been revised in this latest version to give VA latitude in determining for itself whether it’s capable of overseeing clinical trials into marijuana for chronic pain and PTSD.
The significant change appears to be responsive to concerns expressed by VA officials who testified against the earlier proposals.
A previous version of the legislation cleared a House committee in 2021, despite the protests of VA officials. Earlier iterations of the measure also moved through committee in 2020 and 2018 as well, but none were enacted into law.
The legislation has been revised this Congress to include a requirement for a retroactive observation study to look into the experiences of veterans who’ve used marijuana for such treatment in the past outside of the clinical trail context.
IAVA's @321bohm and @adi_thampi at today's Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Confirmation Hearing & Markup on Critical Veterans Legislation including top IAVA priority the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act. @SVACDems @SVACGOP pic.twitter.com/q9hAXC2COF
— IAVA (@iava) February 16, 2023
But there’s another change that observers have picked up on as potentially giving VA the ability to avoid fulfilling a key objective on clinical trials.
Within 90 days of completion of an observational study on the effects of cannabis on PTSD and chronic pain, VA would be required to submit a report to Congress on whether it’s capable of carrying out the more robust clinical trials that were at the center of earlier forms of the legislation.
“The Secretary may terminate the clinical trials…if the Secretary determines that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to meet clinical guideline requirements necessary to conduct such trials or the clinical trials would create excessive risk to participant,” the bill text says.
The reason that’s important, in part, is because VA has repeatedly come out against past versions of the reform proposal, with the department suggesting that the research mandate goes too far with too many requirements. Under the new language, VA could finish the qualitative observational study and then independently decide against carrying out the clinical trial portion involving human subjects.
Other revisions in the new version include removing language that required studies to involve at least seven cannabis varieties and instead leaving that open-ended. That may help further address some of VA’s prior concerns about the measure being unduly prescriptive.
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Correa had a conversation with VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans last year, and so there were some heightened expectations that the department might reverse course on the legislation—but that hasn’t happened to date.
A coalition of more than 20 veterans service organizations (VSOs) sent a letter to congressional leaders late last year to urge the passage of a marijuana and veterans research bill before the end of the last Congress. But that did not pan out.
Also, a large-scale defense spending bill that was enacted at the end of the last session excluded separate language from a previously House-passed version that would have authorized VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans living in legal states.
Advocates and stakeholders have been watching carefully for any marijuana policy moves from Capitol Hill, especially given the shift in political dynamics with Republicans taking the majority in the House while Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has held two meetings on cannabis legislation since the start of the 118th Congress. The first took with key Democratic colleagues at the beginning of the month, and the second happened on Tuesday with GOP senators.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who was part of the former meeting, said in a recent interview that ongoing marijuana banking issues under prohibition amount to a “cannabis crisis,” and while he thinks there’s still a shot to enact reform, he’s emphasized the challenges of the new political reality on Capitol Hill.
The White House was asked last month where President Joe Biden stands on marijuana banking reform, and Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the ball is in Congress’s court, with no current plans for administrative action to resolve the issue.
Also last month, Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) filed legislation that’s meant to protect military veterans from losing government benefits for using medical marijuana in compliance with state law. The bill would further codify that VA doctors are allowed to discuss the potential risks and benefits of marijuana with their patients.
The congressman separately refiled legislation to move marijuana from Schedule I to the less restrictive Schedule III under federal law.
Biden has voiced support for both rescheduling and marijuana research. He also signed a marijuana research bill into law in December, making history by enacting the first piece of standalone federal cannabis reform legislation in U.S. history.
Rep. Alex Mooney (R-WV) and two other GOP cosponsors filed the first piece of cannabis legislation for the 118th Congress. It’s designed to allow medical cannabis patients to purchase and possess firearms.