Federal Flailing: A jammed U.S. Senate can’t seem to get cannabis legalization to the finish line

Congressional Democrats are still trying to advance the legalization of cannabis on a federal level, despite opposition by most Republicans at all levels of government.

Senate Bill 1183, the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, has gained the support of Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, while the SAFE Banking Act is back for a fourth encore, albeit with a new tactic for passage.

Introduced in April by Hawaii Sen. Mark Schatz, S.1183 would allow veterans to “use, possess, or transport medical marijuana and to discuss the use of medical marijuana with a physician of the Department of Veterans Affairs as authorized by a state or Indian tribe, and for other purposes.”

Given the federal status of cannabis as a Schedule I drug, on the same level as heroin, cannabis use among qualified veterans is currently driven by Directive 1315, a policy originally put in place in 2011 and updated in 2017 to guide VA care of qualified patients and allow them to discuss medical marijuana use with their VA physicians. 

The directive emphasizes that “veterans must not be denied VHA services solely because they are participating in state-approved marijuana programs.” Whether or not VA doctors follow that directive is the subject of another column, but the intent of the rules are clear: Veterans in states where medical marijuana is legal cannot be punished for use, or even discussion of use.

Last week, Kelly signed on as a cosponsor of the bill, joining Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.). There is a companion bill in the House of Representatives, cosponsored by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Dave Joyce (R-Ohio).

“Sen. Kelly wants veterans suffering from chronic conditions such as cancer and PTSD to be able to get the same medical advice and treatment at the VA that other Americans get from their own doctors,” Kelly spokesman Jacob Peters said, via email. “There is more work to be done getting this over the finish line. Sen. Kelly will continue working with Republicans and Democrats, and will continue elevating the message from Arizonans who know how much this can improve the lives of their fellow veterans.” 

The legislation attempts to address such pressing vets’ issues as opioid abuse and overdose that has become endemic in the veteran community and has been a factor in an increase in veteran suicides over the years.

The Veterans Action Council, a group of veterans dedicated to gaining cannabis access through the VA, is glad to see something happening, but some do not think the legislation goes far enough.

“I thought the United States was a Safe Harbor for us already,” Tucson veteran Ricardo Pereyda said. “It would have been better if this bill was proposed in 2010.”

Pereyda is a founding member of the group and has been an outspoken advocate for medical pot since 2013.

Other members of the group see it as another step in a process that has played out over the course of generations.

“This is about veterans speaking for ourselves instead of having others speak for us,” the group’s governmental liaison, Virginia-based Michael Krawitz, said. “Veterans deserve the same access to quality of care that [other] citizens would expect. Especially in a hospital setting, veterans need to be able to use medicine that improves their quality of life and that has proven benefits reducing pain and suffering.”

Krawitz said problems with the way the VA deals with cannabis goes back to the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, which put “marihuana” and “marihuana extracts” on the same legal level as heroin and prohibited the medicinal use of cannabis. 

“This medicinal prohibition was never consistent with our treaty obligations,” he said. “To correct this, several pieces of federal legislation have been put forward, one of them being the Veterans Safe Harbor Act.”

A recent paper published by the VAC and distributed to the offices of the bill’s cosponsors is pushing for the VA to qualify and require access for all who need it and provide cannabis in the same way they dole out opiates, so they don’t have to purchase “overpriced” cannabis on the commercial market.

VAC is working for federal legislation that will, in part:

  • Provide for the VA to grow cannabis for veterans.
  • Promote and support home cultivation and medicinal access to a broad variety of cannabis products, especially those grown by small farmers for use in traditional and complementary medicine.
  • Provide for a voucher system for veterans to access cannabis under state-run medicinal programs, patterned after the VA Disabled Veterans Clothing Allowance program.
  • Provide an identifier on VHA patient data cards identifying veterans as federal cannabis patients, eliminating the threat of prosecution/incarceration for possessing cannabis while traveling in the U.S. or on federal property.

The legislation still has a long way to go though, so stay tuned for updates.

SAFE tucked into NDAA

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is making its fifth appearance in the halls of Congress. In a change of tactics, Democrats have attached the bill to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2022.

The law would allow licensed cannabis businesses to operate like any other legal business, with unfettered access to banking services, including the use of credit cards, access to loans and the ability to make deposits and write payroll checks.

The bill passed through the House as part of the NDAA funding package in a 316-113 vote on Sept. 23 and will head to the Senate, where it will likely be stripped out during committee.

SAFE enjoys wide support, both in the cannabis and banking industries, but Republicans in the Senate have consistently killed any efforts to pass this or any other legislative attempts on the federal level.

“With legalization polling at all-time highs and myriad states operating controlled markets for both medicinal and adult-use, it is past time for the cannabis industry to be able to enter into relationships with banks and other financial institutions,” Arizona NORML Director Mike Robinette said. “The SAFE Banking Act would enable state-licensed and legitimate cannabis businesses to be able to operate like all other legal businesses. Because of this, we fully support the SAFE Banking Act and urge readers to contact their senators to urge them to pass SAFE as part of the NDAA.” 

The legislation may see resistance from Senate Democrats though, such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who chairs the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs and may hold out for more comprehensive legislation, such as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, or the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2021 (H.R. 3884—MORE Act).

Arizona DES won’t recognize cannabis biz as legitimate

The Arizona Department of Economic Security, Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services is seeking comment on a new policy that will not allow the use of Workforce and Innovation and
Opportunity Act funds for anything related to the state-sanctioned, legal cannabis business.

The WIOA is designed to “help job seekers access employment, education, training and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. 

The new policy seeks to “clarify that federally funded programs are bound by federal law, and legislative changes by states do not alter the federal law prohibiting the use of federal funds to assist businesses in the marijuana industry.”

Due to the federal status of cannabis, WIOA funds cannot be used for a number of services provided by the DES for job seekers and/or business services in the marijuana industry containing THC, including:

  • Referrals and/or posting of job orders;
  • Training for jobs at a dispensary;
  • Work Experience (WEX) at a dispensary; or
  • Support Services for a job at a dispensary.

In addition, with respect to marijuana containing THC, this means federal funds shall not:

  • Support a customer in entering or retaining employment that is related to the growing, selling, producing, handling, or distribution of marijuana in any form;
  • Support education in fields of study specific to the marijuana industry;
  • Support self-employment or small business goals, or ventures associated with marijuana industry. This includes any business that has related activity that involves marijuana as a component of the business, including self-employment plans that result in the establishment of a dispensary or other marijuana-based industry employment;
  • Be used to support businesses that include marijuana production, processing, transportation, sales or other marijuana-related activities as a component of their business; or
  • Be used to purchase marijuana in any form on behalf of a customer nor assist a customer in the acquisition or consumption of marijuana in any form. There are no exceptions to this prohibition.

Comments regarding this draft policy should be submitted to the TitleIPolicy@azdes.gov mailbox no later than Wednesday, Oct. 13.

Federally funded programs shall not support WIOA Title I-B.

More details can be found at des.az.gov.

Pot prohibition is alive and well, despite a majority of Americans living in a state with legal access to pot.  

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