‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.
At a cannabis conference last week, I overheard someone say, “we still don’t know where Trump is on legalization.” This is a long-held belief in the cannabis industry. Leafly said as much about then-candidate Trump in 2016.
'We don't know where Trump stands'? Please. We know. We just don't want to admit it.
But it’s worn thin over the years. This week it officially became a delusion.
Here’s what happened. In Congress, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday on three bills that would reduce restrictions on veterans’ access to medical cannabis. One bill would allow VA healthcare providers to write state-legal medical cannabis recommendations for veterans who qualify. (Federal law currently prohibits them from doing so.) A separate bill would direct the VA to conduct a clinical study on the risks and benefits of medical marijuana. A third would prevent the VA from stripping veterans of their hard-earned benefits just because they consume state-legal cannabis.
The Trump administration opposed all three. That not merely nonsensical. It’s cruel.
- On average, more than 20 military veterans die by suicide every day, often due to chronic pain, PTSD, or other service-related conditions. Many veterans now find relief from both opioids and chronic pain, and manage their PTSD, with the help of medical cannabis they must obtain outside the VA medical system. This week, President Trump opposed an effort to allow them that relief.
- Not too long ago, veterans could lose their lifelong military benefits if a drug test turned up evidence of cannabis use, no matter how legal. The VA reformed that policy in late 2017—but it’s a policy subject to easy change, not a protection codified by law. President Trump opposes codifying it into law.
- It remains extremely difficult to launch a clinical study on the risks and benefits of medical cannabis on PTSD. Ask Dr. Sue Sisley, who’s famously struggled for years to get her study off the ground. Congress is considering a bill to sponsor just such a study. President Trump opposes it. Think about that: He opposes research into medical cannabis for veterans.
Still wondering what Trump thinks about legalization? Hang on, let me order a big-ass neon billboard from Obvious Signage & Sons. Here’s what it says: HE’S AGAINST IT.
Against Veterans Health
This basket of bills is a no-brainer. More than 90% of Americans support medical marijuana, and it’s hard to think of a more sympathetic adult patient group than our military veterans struggling with PTSD and other service-related conditions. The suicide rate among military veterans is a national crisis, and these bills were created in part to do something about it.
The suicide rate among military veterans is a national crisis. And Trump refuses to allow them medical marijuana.
The congressional committee saw a parade of support for the bill. As Kyle Jaeger reported, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) all expressed varying degrees of support for the bills. These are not radical hippie collectives.
In fairness, the VFW actually opposed Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s bill, the Veterans Equal Access Act—but only because it didn’t go far enough. VFW official Carlos Fuentes said that Blumenauer’s bill wouldn’t allow VA facilities to dispense medical marijuana, forcing veterans to pay for cannabis out of their own pockets. “It is unacceptable for VA providers to recommend a treatment that is unavailable to veterans at their VA medical facilities,” Fuentes said.
Despite mounting support & continued advocacy to get #CannabisForVets, @DeptVetAffairs says it’s opposed to 3 new legislative efforts designed to expand access to medical marijuana for veterans. The time is now for the VA to get on board. https://t.co/BbpbZW3lKd
— IAVA (@iava) May 1, 2019
This Is Trump’s Policy
Let’s be clear: When the head of a federal agency speaks before Congress, they speak for the White House. They are carrying out official Trump policy. If the president disagreed with it, we’d see it covfefe’d all over his 4 a.m. Twitter feed.
This is Trump's policy. If the president disagreed with it, we’d see it covfefe’d all over his 4 a.m. Twitter feed.
To explain Trump’s policy, the administration sent Keita Franklin, national director of suicide prevention in the VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. She said the VA won’t allow doctors to recommend legal cannabis because the DEA said so. Seriously. That was her answer.
Franklin said DEA officials, who seem determined to defend the indefensible Schedule I status of cannabis down to their last bullet, “advised VA that no provision of the Controlled Substances Act would be exempt from criminal sanctions.” That’s a polite way to threaten VA doctors with arrest by DEA agents.
How Can You Oppose Research?
And how did she defend Trump’s stand against research? Any such research, she said, “must include an evaluation of the risks and safety” of such research. Which is nonsense. All clinical research is required to pass the scrutiny of a safety and ethics panel known as an institutional review board, or IRB. That is literally why IRBs exist.
We’ve been pretending for three years now that Trump’s stand on legalization is a mystery. It may be that Trump personally does not give the issue a single thought. Leafly contributor Chris Roberts, among others, has argued this point. Others, like Sen. Cory Gardner, take Trump at his word when he offers assurance that he’ll sign some unspecified future legalization bill. But after two years of President Trump, we’ve learned that his word is worth less than stock options in the Trump Taj Mahal.
Actions Speak Clearly
Don’t ignore his words completely. But focus on Trump’s cannabis actions. He installed the notoriously cannabis-obsessed Jeff Sessions as his attorney general in 2017. He did nothing to stop Sessions from rescinding the Cole memo in 2018. In 2019, he is coldly and cruelly denying desperate American veterans the right to try medical cannabis to alleviate their pain and PTSD.
There are more than 20 declared candidates for president in 2020. Only two of them—Trump and Joe Biden—are against cannabis legalization. Biden owns up to his position, which hasn’t changed in decades. He’s clearly signaled that he’s against it. Trump pretends he isn’t. It’s time for the rest of us to stop enabling that fable.