WASHINGTON -- A House committee has struck down a measure allowing Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss and recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where the drug is legal, blocking it from debate Wednesday on the House floor.
The "Veterans Equal Access" measure has been debated and voted on the past three years in the House as an amendment to the VA appropriations bill, and it passed the House with a vote of 233-189 in 2016. After Tuesday's vote of the House Rules Committee, it won't have that chance this year.
"This provision overwhelmingly passed on the House floor last year -- and bipartisan support has only grown. It's outrageous that the Rules Committee won't even allow a vote for our veterans," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in a prepared statement. "They deserve better. They deserve compassion."
The rejection comes at the same time more veterans than ever are rallying behind marijuana as a potential treatment for service-connected health problems and an alternative to addictive opioids. The American Legion decided last August that it would advocate to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs, which are designated as having no medical use. Reclassifying marijuana would remove barriers from scientific research.
In May, VA Secretary David Shulkin said at the White House that he was open to learning from any evidence that marijuana could be used as treatment.
Blumenauer, who is the founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, has led the effort to eliminate the VA policy prohibiting doctors nationwide from discussing marijuana with their patients. The measure also had 18 cosponsors, nine Republicans and nine Democrats.
After the House Rules Committee blocked the amendment Tuesday night, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., tweeted: "It would pass. I'll keep fighting."
The House is scheduled to debate the VA appropriations bill Wednesday night. The rules committee allowed 16 amendments to move forward to the House floor.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the rules committee, tried to allow lawmakers to offer all their amendments on the House floor. Her attempt was defeated 9-3, along party lines.
Before the committee's decision Tuesday, Blumenauer urged its members to allow him to offer the amendment. He cited information from the VA in 2014 that found veterans are twice as likely to die from an accidental overdose as non-veterans.
"We would be far better off if our veterans had access to medical marijuana and less reliance on opioids, which is literally killing them," he said. "Under this amendment, marijuana would not be dispensed by the VA or consumed on federal property -- it simply ends the current gag rule that says doctors can't talk to their patients about it, even if they think it's appropriate."
One Republican on the committee, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, spoke in favor of the amendment.
"I've seen firsthand the benefit people can derive from medical marijuana," he said. "It seems to me if it's available and it works, we should make that available to our veterans as well. I support your effort."
Last year, the Senate also passed the Veterans Equal Access amendment with bipartisan support, on a vote of 89-9. But it was stripped out of the final legislation during negotiations to reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions of the VA appropriations bill.
Senators have so far passed the amendment out of committee this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 24-7 on July 13 to include it in the Senate's VA appropriations bill.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., introduced the amendment. Montana is one of 29 states that permit some form of cannabis use. He said the current VA policy is a "violation of veterans' rights to talk openly and freely with their doctor."
If the Senate approves it again this year, the amendment could make it into the final bill after negotiations between the House and Senate -- though it didn't last year, after both chambers passed it.