The first Senate marijuana bill of the new Congress would direct the U.S. Department for Veteran Affairs (VA) to carry out research on the medical benefits of cannabis for the treatment of conditions common among military veterans.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK), has the same title as a bill the bipartisan duo proposed during the last Congress, but its language more forcefully instructs VA to begin researching medical cannabis than the earlier legislation did.

Last year’s bill simply said that the department “may conduct and support research relating to the efficacy and safety of forms of cannabis,” though there is nothing in current federal law that actually prevents the VA from doing so.

This latest version stipulates that the VA, which has been reluctant to engage in marijuana studies, “shall” begin conducting clinical trials on cannabis.

Sullivan said that he’s heard from many veteran constituents who want to find an alternative to prescription painkillers for their conditions.

“Many of our nation’s veterans already use medicinal cannabis, and they deserve to have full knowledge of the potential benefits and side effects of this alternative therapy,” he said in a press release.

Tester, the ranking member on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, stressed in a press release the VA’s responsibilities towards veterans in findings effective treatment and pain relief.

“The VA needs to listen to the growing number of veterans who have already found success in medicinal cannabis in easing their pain and other symptoms. Our bill will make sure the VA takes proactive steps to explore medicinal cannabis as a safe and effective alternative to opioids for veterans suffering from injuries or illness received in the line of duty.”

The proposed double-blind randomized controlled clinical trials are meant to cover the potential therapeutic applications of marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

In particular, the VA would have to study areas such as medical cannabis’s effect on opioid, benzodiazepine and alcohol consumption, as well as inflammation, sleep quality, spasticity, agitation, quality of life, mood, anxiety, social functioning, suicidal ideation and frequency of nightmares or night terrors.

The more forceful language of the new bill has been praised by marijuana reform advocates.

“The more assertive language is great improvement to this commonsense research bill that could ultimately help veterans with debilitating conditions,” said Michael Liszewski, principal of The Enact Group, a lobbying and consulting firm that focuses on cannabis issues..

“The Department of Veterans Affairs already has the ability to conduct this research and the previous language would have let the Department continue to drag its heels,” he said. “It’s sort of like the difference between a parent telling their child ‘maybe you should clean up your room’ versus ‘you will clean up your room, now.’”

During the last Congress, the Senate version of the legislation garnered six cosponsors, while 55 representatives ultimately signed onto the House version. The bill became the first standalone piece of marijuana legislation to clear a congressional panel when the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved it in May.

Nonetheless, VA leadership remained reluctant about engaging in marijuana research, with VA Secretary David Shulkin falsely claiming in a letter to lawmakers last year that federal law restricted the organisation’s ability to conduct medical marijuana research.

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