WASHINGTON D.C. — Veterans hoping to discuss medical marijuana with their doctors will have to wait. Last night the U.S. House voted down a bipartisan amendment that would have allowed Veterans Administration (VA) doctors to recommend cannabis to their patients in states where medical marijuana is legal.
The bill by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) was defeated by only three votes, one of which was cast in error. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he supports medical marijuana and intended to vote in favor but: “I misread the amendment.” If not for his mistake, the bill would have failed by only one vote.
“While the defeat was frustrating, it demonstrated support in the first vote on marijuana policy in this Congress,” Rep. Blumenauer said in a press release that drew attention to the the unfair situation veterans face. “We were able to make the case publicly to members and their staff about the inequity of a situation where 213 million Americans live in states where they have access to medical marijuana, yet veterans are denied the ability to be helped by their VA primary care provider. Forcing them, at their own expense and trouble, to find somebody else who doesn’t have the same doctor-patient relationship with them for their medical needs is not only not fair, but it’s not best medical practice.”
In a letter to Congress from a former VA physician pointed out, “Our men and women in uniform make incredible sacrifices for our country, and the least we could do make every possible treatment option available to them when they come home.” During a heated debate on Wednesday, other supporters said the issue boiled down to whether the ten million veterans enrolled in the VA for health care should be treated differently from non-veterans in their states who use civilian doctors.
Pointing out that Republicans were supposed to believe in the doctor-patient relationship, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif, who supported the amendment, said: “If you vote against this you don’t believe in the doctor-patient relationship for veterans, of all people.” Later that evening at the Marijuana Policy Project’s 20th anniversary ball, Rohrabacher said that opponents “really just believe in the nanny state.”
A similar amendment was also defeated last year, but the vote was far tighter this time. With public support for medical marijuana snowballing, and increasing numbers of veterans going public with pleas for access, the question is no longer “if” but “when” the House will approve a similar measure. In a House with a large Republican majority, Blumenauer said the narrow margin was “an extraordinarily strong showing. This year’s much closer vote signals that we are in an excellent position to be able to pass simple, commonsense legislation to deal with the realities of the legal business of marijuana across the country – including legislation to allow state-legal marijuana businesses to deduct business expenses and to no longer have to operate on a cash-only basis.”
In most medical marijuana states a doctor’s recommendation exempts a patient from local or state arrest. Patients are free to discuss the pros and cons of treatment with their doctors to determine whether cannabis may help their condition. However doctors at VA hospitals are not allowed to talk about medical marijuana with patients. The bill would have ended that ban, extending the same rights to veterans as other patients residing in these states.
The measure picked up support in some unexpected quarters, with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who firmly opposes recreational use, said in an e-mail statement: “Brave men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country deserve the right to have an open dialogue with the doctors who care for them. This amendment would have allow doctors in Utah to discuss the best treatment options available to veterans – especially those suffering from debilitating seizures.”
However opponents claimed that it would allow federal doctors to distribute marijuana and even allow marijuana use on federal property, permitting federal employees to break the law. Blumenauer said: “While opponents provided false information that medical marijuana has no therapeutic value, we were able to drive home the point that the current system, which denies veterans medical marijuana but overprescribes them highly addictive and dangerous opioids, is the real scandal.”