Senators Seek to Legalize Medical Cannabis for Vets and Add Other Marijuana Reforms to Defense Bill

Senators Seek to Legalize Medical Cannabis for Vets and Add Other Marijuana Reforms to Defense Bill

Senate Democrats want to pass a series of cannabis reform measures through a must-pass Department of Defense legislation this week.

The use of medicinal marijuana as a potential treatment for military veterans suffering from debilitating conditions such as chronic pain and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has been championed by numerous respected treatment organizations and thousands of veterans who swear by the medical benefits of cannabis.


However, despite the results and calls for change by veterans’ organizations and medical professionals, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 narcotic on the Controlled Substances List and is still illegal under federal law. Without an end to Prohibition or specific legislation allowing for an exception, veterans cannot legally utilize the potential benefits of marijuana to help treat their duty-related trauma.


While there have been several attempts in the House and Senate to pass legislation enabling vets to access medical cannabis, none of them have passed, and most never made it to a vote. Undeterred, a few determined Democratic Senators are attempting to add specific marijuana reforms, including one allowing military vets legal access to medical marijuana, to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), according to multiple media outlets.


The NDAA is a must-pass bill that Congress has to renew annually. The official Congressional Glossary defines a must-pass bill as “a vitally important measure that Congress must enact, such as annual money bills to fund operations of the government.” Because of their mandatory nature, these pieces of legislation tend to attract “riders” or amendments that a lawmaker hopes to get through more quickly by including them in other legislation.


Along with the proposed rider to legalize medical marijuana use for military veterans, Senators also hope to include a separate GOP-sponsored amendment that would strengthen fentanyl-related enforcement while removing barriers to research for Schedule 1 drugs like cannabis.


Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) is sponsoring the measure allowing veterans to use medical marijuana in states and territories where it is legal. In addition to providing legal access for military vets, the bill will protect doctors who counsel and fill out the appropriate paperwork recommending medicinal cannabis for those veterans.


Likewise, the amendment requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to support clinical trials investigating the therapeutic impact of medical marijuana in treating conditions like chronic pain and PTSD.


The findings section of the proposed amendment states, “Marijuana and its compounds show promise for pain management and treating a wide range of diseases and disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical marijuana in States where it is legal may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”


"Marijuana and its compounds show promise for pain management and treating a wide range of diseases and disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical marijuana in States where it is legal may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”

- Findings Section of Proposed Amendment to the NDAA


The bill’s cosponsors in the Senate include Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), John Fetterman (D-PA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Peter Welch (D-VT).


The GOP-controlled House already rejected more than a dozen bipartisan drug reform measures proposed for that chamber’s version of the NDAA last week. This effort by Senator Schatz and his colleagues is an attempt to use the Senate’s version to advance other incremental changes.


Other proposed riders include:

  • A measure sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would make it so that prior use of marijuana “may be relevant, but not determinative, to adjudications of the eligibility of the individual for access to classified information or the eligibility of the individual to hold a sensitive position.”
  • An amendment to add the language of the entire Intelligence Authorization Act to the NDAA to prohibit the denial of releasing classified information to an employee at an intelligence agency like the CIA based solely on their admission of using cannabis before applying for security clearance.
  • A bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to increase the federal criminalization of fentanyl analogs (which drug policy reform advocates have criticized as backward and punitive) and add more provisions to streamline research into Schedule 1 narcotics like marijuana and psychedelics.

It is unclear and, in the estimation of many pundits, highly unlikely Senate Democrats and Republicans will agree on attaching any of the proposed amendments to the final version of the bill. It is even less probable that the GOP-controlled House will sign off on any of the measures if they somehow end up attached on the Senate side.


However, change, particularly regarding issues like marijuana, while painfully slow for advocates and stakeholders, will eventually come despite the stonewalling and obstructionist tactics employed by many conservative politicians. If not this time, it will be the next time very soon. That is why there are elections, and another very important one is less than 16 months away.