Marijuana Research for Veterans’ Ailments Stumbles in Senate

May 2, 2023
Category: News

A technician inspects a marijuana plant with a Prozac strain at the NextGen Pharma lab in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, in 2018.
Photographer: Dennis M. Rivera-Pichardo/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Senate, in a rare move, considered - but ultimately opted against - whether to back cannabis research at the Veterans Affairs Department for generations of former troops who suffer from trauma, stress, chronic pain, and opioid addiction.

Bipartisan legislation (S. 326), written by Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), failed on a procedural vote in the Senate Wednesday, even as the chamber is thawing to the idea of green-lighting federal cannabis research and use after years of pressure from veterans organizations and marijuana advocates.

“By blocking consideration of a bill that passed unanimously out of committee two months ago, a group of Republicans today prioritized partisan politics over providing our nation’s veterans their hard-earned benefits and care,” Tester said in a statement.

‘Work Like Hell’

The vote comes on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) promise last week to “work like hell” to advance cannabis law changes and federal legalization. The vote’s 57-42 tally fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. Schumer on Wednesday changed his vote to oppose the bill so that under Senate rules he could bring up the vote again in the future.

Eight Republican senators joined Democrats in supporting the legislation: Veterans’ Affairs Committee members Jerry Moran (Kansas), Bill Cassidy (La.), Mike Rounds (S.D.), and Dan Sullivan (Alaska); moderates Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska); and both of Missouri’s senators Josh Hawley and Eric Schmitt.

Wednesday’s vote was the first in a series of procedural moves necessary to get the legislation to final passage. Lawmakers were expected to use the cannabis bill as a vehicle to pass a broader, bipartisan package of changes to veterans policy, starting with a substitute amendment fromTester. Republicans blocked the bill because they wanted “more assurances” from Democratic leadership on the amendment process, Moran said.

The cannabis provisions aren’t without opponents: Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) planned to offer an amendment stripping the language, according to a spokesperson. It also remains to be seen whether such a measure could advance in the House, now Republican-led and skewing against marijuana use.

Marijuana is labeled a Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. That means it has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Senators are also negotiating legislation known as the Safe Banking Act, which would allow financial institutions to legally exchange funds for legitimate marijuana businesses without running afoul of federal prohibitions. The Senate last year by voice vote passed legislation making it easier for researchers and manufacturers to study marijuana, the first time Congress had passed a standalone measure increasing access to the drug.

Study and Trials

Tester’s committee in February advanced his legislation, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2023, behind closed doors. The bill would direct the VA to study the effects of cannabis on veterans who are enrolled in the VA health care system and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both legs during her military service in Iraq, also is a cosponsor.

The bill would require the VA to conduct an observational, 18-month study on the effects of cannabis on veterans’ health outcomes, then report the results to Congress and address whether it can conduct clinical trials.

The trials would look into how cannabis can help with certain ailments and examine the effects of marijuana in different forms, potency, and methods of administration. The legislation would also expand research into other factors related to veterans’ health, such as improvements to mood, social functioning, impacts on other substance use, and changes to overall quality of life.

Both the VA and the Food and Drug Administration are conducting research on cannabis, and Tester’s bill would ensure the VA meets existing guidelines for such research. The legislation also seeks to improve reporting requirements and includes provisions to protect all participants in both the large-scale study and clinical trials from adverse action from the VA.

‘Dragging Their Feet’

Veterans’ service organizations, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, are supporting and advocating for Tester’s bill. They say the VA has been too slow in researching the medical benefits of cannabis.

“They’ve been dragging their feet,” Patrick Murray, the national legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars, said about the VA during a committee hearing earlier this year.

In the House, Reps. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Jack Bergman (R-Mich) introduced companion legislation (H.R. 1003). A previous version of the bill passed the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2021.

State Legalization

As of this month, 38 states, three territories and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, VA doctors can’t prescribe marijuana even in the states where it is legal, because at the federal level it isn’t.

“It’s an issue that shouldn’t be that controversial,” Sullivan said in a hallway interview Tuesday. “When you talk to veterans, a lot of them just want the information on what this potentially can do for them, versus, like, opioids which we know doesn’t always end well for veterans.”

The National Academy of Sciences in a 2017 study found “conclusive or substantial” evidence that cannabis is effective in the treatment of chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and vomiting and spasms from multiple sclerosis.

The study also found “moderate evidence” that marijuana can improve sleep for those with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis, and is helpful in treating chronic pain problems, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.

(Updates throughout with Senate vote failing.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Zach C. Cohen in Washington at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Anna Yukhananov at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; Angela Greiling Keane at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article was origianlly published at Bloomberg Law by Roxana Tiron and Zach C. Cohen.

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