House Votes for Easier Veterans Access to Medical Marijuana


Medical marijuana buds dry in preparation for final packaging at the Tweed Inc. facility in Smith Falls, Ontario, Canada, on Nov. 11, 2015.

Photographer: James MacDonald/Bloomberg
  • Action reflects shift in U.S. sentiment toward the treatment
  • Chamber voted on Confederate flag, discrimination provisions

The U.S. House voted to allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states where it’s legal, marking the strongest sign yet that attitudes in Congress toward the drug are shifting along with public sentiment.

The House took several other emotional votes Thursday, including approving an amendment that would ban the display of the Confederate battle flag in veterans’ cemeteries and, in a particularly raucous moment, narrowly defeating another that aimed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in federal contracting.

On the medical marijuana amendment, the 233-189 vote Thursday to bar an Obama administration gag order on VA doctors is a reversal from a year ago, when a similar proposal by Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, was narrowly defeated on a 210-213 vote. Two years ago, the same effort failed 195-222. 

Senate appropriators this year included a similar provision in their version of an annual spending bill governing veterans health programs, which is under debate on the Senate floor.

Currently, veterans have to hire an outside physician at their own expense to get such treatment, an “unjustified” hurdle affecting some veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and chronic pain and who might benefit, Blumenauer said.

"We should not be limiting the treatment options available to our veterans," said Blumenauer, whose home state is among 24, along with the District of Columbia, that have laws legalizing medical marijuana.

Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, said during floor debate Wednesday night that he opposes the policy shift, albeit reluctantly. Dent said that he was "uncomfortable in trying to dictate policy on marijuana" without guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other medical professionals.

Blumenauer retorted that the amendment doesn’t dictate anything, but instead would "simply enable doctors and patients to interact with a state’s legal marijuana systems."

White House spokeswoman Katie Hill declined to comment on the provision before the vote, but the administration’s veto threat on the Senate bill containing the provision didn’t mention it.

The White House’s policy on marijuana has been evolving, and President Barack Obama has previously signed into law bans on enforcement against state-sanctioned medical marijuana operations. The Justice Department has also declined to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized it for recreational use, like Colorado, but Obama, who has written about and joked about his own drug use, has not embraced legalization or rescheduling of the drug.

The amendment is on the House’s broader $81.6 billion bill funding military construction and veterans programs in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. 

Confederate Flag

A separate amendment adopted Thursday on a 265-159 vote would prohibit the large-scale display of Confederate flags in VA-run cemeteries. A related amendment last year, coming in the wake of a deadly shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, proved so awkward for Republicans that it scuttled the entire House debate over individual spending bills.  

This year’s proposal was offered by Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, who described the flag as a “disrespectful” symbol of hate that has no place on government property, and especially not on the grounds of veterans’ cemeteries.

“It’s past time to end the public promotion of this cruel, racist legacy of the Confederacy,” he said. “Symbols matter.”

No one spoke against the amendment during Wednesday’s late night debate.

LGBT Discrimination

Democrats led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland expressed outrage on the House floor after several members were allowed to change their votes quietly after regular time expired to vote on an amendment protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination from federal contractors.

"Not only did they vote against equality and inclusion, but those who switched their votes did not even have the courage to do so openly in the well of the House," Hoyer said in a statement. "They did so quietly from the back benches, contrary to established practice that requires vote-switching to be done in person at the clerk’s desk, and House Republican leaders held a two-minute vote open for nearly eight minutes." 

The measure was announced as failing, in a 212-213 vote. But just moments earlier, the electronic tally displayed 217 votes in favor, and the total could have gone higher.

After the vote, Hoyer, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats lashed out at House Speaker Paul Ryan for what they said was a failure to fulfill pledges of transparency in handling House votes and procedures when he took the gavel last October.

“Evidently Speaker Ryan’s promises of regular order mean nothing, when regular order means a majority of the House standing up to protect LGBT Americans from bigotry," Pelosi said in a statement. "House Republicans’ outrageous and cowardly actions today utterly expose the reality of their hateful agenda."

During a later news conference, Ryan offered little about what happened on the floor regarding the amendment sponsored by Representative Sean Maloney, a Democrat from New York.

"I don’t even know," he said of what occurred, and whether it was at leadership’s direction.

But when asked about his view of the amendment, Ryan said, "I think this is federalism. The states should do this. The federal government shouldn’t stick its nose in its business."

One other Democrat, Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, said afterward there is a difference between "being clever and intelligent." He said Republicans in this maneuver may have been clever, but that it was not intelligent in terms of longer-term relations with Democrats across the aisle.

The White House has threatened to veto the underlying spending bill, H.R. 4974, which funds military construction and veterans affairs programs, if it includes partisan provisions. A statement cited opposition to language that would restrict the administration’s ability to construct an alternative facility to house Guantanamo Bay detainees.

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