Senate panel OKs medical marijuana access for veterans; Alaska to see $561M in construction spend

A Senate subcommittee moved veterans one step closer to accessing medical marijuana in states where it is legal, which up to this point has been strictly prohibited under a 2011 Veterans Health Administration directive.

The U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies voted to approve the Veterans Equal Access Amendment into the FY2017 Military Construction and Appropriations Bill. Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., introduced the amendment, which would prohibit any federal funds to be used to punish Veterans Affairs doctors from recommending or discussing medical marijuana with their patients.

Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted in favor of the amendment.

When Pennsylvania Gov. Tam Wolf signs a bill that will legalize medical marijuana in the state, the U.S. will have 24 states with legalized medical marijuana systems, and 17 states with allowances for medical use of cannabidiol oils.

Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, however, veterans do not have access through their VA physicians because of the 2011 order.

A 2011 Veterans Health Administration directive forbade VA doctors from recommending or even discussing medical marijuana with patients. The directive was set to expire on Jan. 31, 2016, but is still in effect as the VHA anticipated a congressional action to reverse the policy. The amendment in the FY17 appropriations bill will have to be renewed annually.

The same amendment passed the same committee last year by an 18-12 vote with four Republicans joining 14 Democrats. This year the vote to approve the amendment was 20-10 with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Roy Blount, R-Mo., joining the majority.

Daines spoke out against the current policy during the brief debate, characterizing it as, “a violation of the 10th Amendment against states and the 1st Amendment against veterans speaking freely with their VA doctors.”

Daines and 21 other legislators wrote a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald in 2015 urging him to let VA doctors discuss and recommend marijuana in states where it is legal.

Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been amenable to certain marijuana legislation in the past. In 2012, he expressed a personal opposition to Colorado’s recreational marijuana legalization effort, but ultimately believes that the matter should be left to states rather than the federal government.

Similar amendments to allow for veteran medical marijuana usage failed in the past, including the Daines-Merkley amendment last year. It failed in the House by a vote of 210-213.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., introduced legislation in 2015 to allow Veterans Health Administration doctors to recommend medical cannabis, but the House Appropriations Committee rejected the measure.

The House of Representatives has slightly warmed to medical marijuana, passing an appropriations bill in 2014 with an amendment by Farr that would have banned federal prosecutors from challenging state marijuana laws. It is also subject to annual renewal.

Alaska construction spending totals $561M; $103B for VA forward funded for FY18

The committee approved the full $561 million in the president’s request for Alaska-related military construction spending, with more than half of that for the recently announced deployment of two squadrons of F-35s to be based at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks.

The totals break down as follows, according to Murkowski’s office:

  • $295.6 million for seven construction projects supporting the 2020-2021 beddown of 54 F-35 A Joint Strike Fighters at Eielson Air Force Base.
  • $155 million to construct the Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR) at Clear Air Force Station.
  • $47 million to construct a hangar to house the Gray Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles at Fort Wainwright.
  • $29 million to expand and improve the Airborne Warning and Control Systems Alert Hanger at Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson.
  • $20 million to construct a new fire station at Clear Air Force Station.
  • $9.6 million for electrical improvements to the missile defense fields at Fort Greely. 
  • $4.9 million to construct a jet fuel truck offload facility at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

A total of 54 new aircraft and an estimated 2,765 personnel will be part of the F-35 deployment, with construction to begin in fiscal year 2017, which begins Oct. 1.

Veterans Affairs spending increased $14.7 billion over last year to a record $177.4 billion total.

Veterans mandatory benefits received $103.9 billion in advance FY2018 funding. This includes veteran disability compensation programs for 4.4 million veterans and 405,000 survivors; education benefits for nearly 1.1 million veterans; guaranteed home loans for 429,000 veterans; and vocational rehabilitation and employment training for more than 141,000 veterans.

Veterans medical programs received $66.4 billion in advance FY2018 funding.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

04/14/2016 - 1:21pm