The Veterans Equal Access Amendment would expand access to medical marijuana for veterans. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Will this be the year Congress expands veterans’ access to medical marijuana?

A Senate committee just voted to allow VA doctors to talk medical marijuana with patients, but a similar measure was killed last year despite bicameral support.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday amended must-pass legislation to add language expanding access to medical marijuana for military veterans.

Again.

The Veterans Equal Access Amendment to the 2018 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill would prohibit federal funds from interfering with a veteran’s ability to take part in medical marijuana programs approved by states where cannabis is legal. It would also allow Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors in those legal states to “make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms, or take steps to comply with such a program.” An identical amendment is expected to receive a vote in the house version of the bill later this year.

Both the House and Senate passed a similar amendment last year. But that provision, as the Military Times reported in June 2016, “disappeared mysteriously” from the final VA funding bill after Republicans removed it during a concurrence vote.

Whether the latest 24-to-7 vote in favor of the amendment is lip service or a sign of larger policy changes in the works remains to be seen.

The amendment has the support of powerful veterans organizations, including The American Legion. The nation’s largest veterans service group supports additional legislative steps to expedite its passage into law, said spokesman Joe Plenzler.

“The House and the Senate have attempted to do this over the past two years, yet each time the conference committee has failed to reconcile the language relating to this initiative,” he said. “The American Legion would like to see the language of this bill reconciled before submission so it doesn’t have to go to the committee.”

Other veterans’ cannabis advocacy groups, still bitter from last year’s outcome, are holding a hard line.

“It is my position that any member of the House or Senate who votes against this amendment is no friend of veterans,” said Roger Martin, founder of Grow for Vets USA, a Las Vegas-based non-profit that gives away medical cannabis to veterans.

Enthusiasm for the passage of this amendment is “muted” by the fact that the same language was stripped out of last year’s appropriation despite passing by impressive margins in both the House and the Senate, Martin said.

That sentiment was echoed by Sean Kiernan, president of Weed For Warriors, a California-based nonprofit educating vets on the benefits of medical marijuana.

“We have been here before, then magically the amendment disappeared in reconciliation after both the House and Senate had passed it,” he told The Cannabist. “Why should getting it out of appropriations (committee) give veterans hope?”

But Nick Etten, the founder and executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, said his organization took heart in the “strong action” taken by the senate appropriations committee.

“Healing from the wounds of war requires effective treatment options, and medical cannabis is a proven, safe and responsible choice for veterans,” he told The Cannabist.

There are nearly 19 million veterans, many of whom survived their service only to return to civilian life with battle scars seen and unseen. An increasing number of those vets — and the groups that support them — are demanding safe access to medical marijuana to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other physical and mental afflictions.

The VA has no position on the appropriations amendment, a spokesperson told The Cannabist.

The VA “is required to follow all federal laws regarding marijuana use,” the agency states on its website. That means the healthcare system’s clinicians cannot prescribe medical cannabis to their patients or complete any of the forms required for vets to take part in medical marijuana programs in states that have legalized it.

In his May “State of the VA” address, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin made the agency’s position clear. “Until the time that federal law changes,” he said, “we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”

The Veterans Equal Access amendment is meaningful if only because it has the potential to remove the stigma surrounding medical marijuana, said Adam Foster, an attorney with Denver’s Hoban Law Group. Earlier this year he was part of a team that successfully lobbied to get PTSD listed as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in Colorado.

“If veterans are getting treatment through the VA, we want them to be able to be honest with their VA doctor so they can get a comprehensive treatment plan that could include medical cannabis as well as pharmaceutical drugs,” he told The Cannabist. “That’s why we want VA doctors to become more educated about cannabis, the endocannabinoid system and how cannabis can compliment other drugs.”

The ability to be honest with their doctors about medical marijuana is also critical if those patients are to be weaned off addictive prescription drugs, he emphasized.

The risk of veterans dying by suicide is significantly higher than that of the adult civilian population, according to a recent report from the VA using 2014 data that shows as many as 20 military veterans take their own lives daily.

But Grow for Vets’ Martin previously told The Cannabist that the VA statistics don’t tell the whole story. He estimates that more than 1 million vets are currently taking opiates, most of which were obtained from VA facilities. As a result, he said, many veterans are dependent on pharmaceuticals and at a greater risk of overdose or suicide. He estimates that more than 50 vets a day die from prescription drug overdoses and suicide.

“This is but one more glaring example of how large pharmaceutical companies negatively influence our lives by stuffing billions of dollars into politicians’ election campaigns,” he said of legislators’ reticence to pass The Veterans Equal Access Amendment into law.

But attorney Foster remains optimistic that the arguments against medical marijuana are becoming less politically divided.

He points out that the new appropriations amendment was bipartisan, co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon). He also hailed bipartisan efforts to reclassify cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act.

Introduced in April by two Florida congressmen, Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz and Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, House Bill 2020 would reclassify cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule III, allowing for banking activities and creating a clearer path for research.

The American Legion also advocates rescheduling cannabis so that more research can be done on its potential medical benefits. Earlier this week, the group expressed its support of the legislation in a letter to Rep. Gaetz that was also shared with The Cannabist.

Rescheduling cannabis would enable medical research into the efficacy of cannabis in treating PTSD, TBI, chronic pain and other afflictions that veterans face every day as a result of their combat service, Charles E. Schmidt, American Legion National Commander wrote.

“With 90 percent of Americans supporting legalization of medical marijuana today, it is time for Congress to act so that scientists are free to conduct advanced research into cannabis and PTSD/TBI, and enable the American people to have a fact-based discussion about the therapeutic value of cannabis. The lives of our veterans depend on it.”