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Rep. Earl Blumenauer Says the Opioid Crisis Is Helping Him Get Medical Marijuana for Veterans

Thanks to Oregonians, veterans are one step closer to getting medical marijuana prescribed by their actual doctors.

And now for some happy news.

In April, we reported that U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) helped pass an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill that would "allow Veterans Health Administration (VA) doctors to discuss and make recommendations about the use of medical marijuana with their patients."

Now, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has passed a similar amendment to the same bill on the House floor. What this means is that if the bill goes through with these amendments, in states where medical cannabis is legal, veterans will be allowed to talk to their doctors about it as a treatment option. (Currently, veterans have to hire a doctor outside of the VA if they want to be prescribed medical marijuana.)

Quick U.S. government lesson: The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill is a funding bill that must be approved every year by the House and the Senate. Both houses go through the bill separately, making amendments to it. Then, the now two versions of the bill go to a committee, which irons out the whole thing and creates one bill using the amendments. (Merkley is part of the Senate Appropriations Committee and offered his amendment in committee, but Blumenauer offered his on the House floor.) After that, both houses once again vote on the bill. Phew.

This is the third time Rep. Blumenauer has brought this amendment to the House floor. In 2014, he lost 195-222. In 2015, he lost 210-213. This year, the tables turned and he won 233-189.

When asked over the phone what changed this year, Blumenauer said that nationally, perceptions about medical marijuana have changed. And also, the country is at a crisis point with opioid addiction.

"We've got a national problem," said Blumenauer. "It's worse for veterans."

"Seventy-eight people a day die from opioid overdose—over 20,000 people last year," Blumenauer added. "For veterans, opioid overdose rate is almost twice the rate of the general population."

The amendment to the bill would mean VA doctors could talk to their patients about using medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for treatment for pain and symptoms of PTSD. And this could have a big impact on another killer of veterans as well: suicide.

"We lose veterans to suicide at a rate 50 percent higher than the regular population," said Blumenauer. "We lose 22 veterans a day. It's an epidemic.

"What we're doing now isn't working for them."

With public opinion changing more and more in favor of marijuana as a viable alternative to pharmaceuticals, the facts that there is similar language in both versions of the bill and that this year the amendment passed with bipartisan support, Blumenauer feels good about the prospect of this amendment making it into the final version of the bill.

Blumenauer considers the vote today a victory for veterans. "It makes me smile," he says.