NORTH PORT, Fla. — Staggered by the burgeoning numbers of veteran suicides, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube said on Wednesday he supports removing marijuana from its wrongly classified Schedule 1 status.
"And I think you'd be surprised by the amount of Republicans that would support it," said the Sarasota Republican, who added Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would likely block a descheduling bill. But Steube said a vote would enjoy broad bipartisan support in the House and could come up for a vote this session.
"I think as you're seeing a younger generation of elected officials — I mean, look at (Florida Gov. Ron) DeSantis and some of the things he's done — and their positions on those issues are very different."
Steube's remarks followed a town hall meeting sponsored by Concerned Veterans of America at the Suncoast Technical College Conference Center. The nation's suicide epidemic among veterans and active-duty personnel — 20.6 self-inflicted fatalities a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs — cast a shadow across the forum, even as many gathered to hear about the latest wrinkles in the Mission Act.
Passed in 2018 to give veterans better access to VA health care, the new regulations will go into effect on June 6. The new law allows patients who've been waiting for more than 20 days or who drive more than 30 miles to enter a VA facility to visit a community doctor closer to their residences. The expansion is huge, as it opens new avenues of services to roughly 40 percent of the veteran population. Under current rules, just 8% of veterans have those options.
But solving the suicide epidemic has no easy fix, as Steube told a crowded meeting room. In fact, there's so much misinformation about what veterans in Florida and other medical marijuana-legal states are liable for with their medical-cannabis prescriptions, the House freshman said he intends to introduce a bill to codify protection for veterans whose urinalyses may test positive for marijuana.
"The directive is, you can't be denied VA services, but I've heard from veterans in my own district who say they've been told otherwise ... So I have a bill to make it law that if you live in a state that has lawfully opened up medicinal marijuana and you have a recommendation for a prescription ... you cannot lose those VA benefits."
A member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Steube calls the suicide epidemic a crisis that can't ignore any potential remedies. He says the VA is trying to be proactive in its screening procedures, but the numbers continue to skyrocket.
"So just in the last 18 months, 34 service members have committed suicide in a Veterans Affairs hospital or clinic — in the actual place that's supposed to be taking care of them ... And if anybody here has a solution to that problem, or ways we can identify service members who are in a higher risk for that category ... I'm all ears to that."
Last year, the Herald-Tribune published a special section on veterans advocating cannabis over opioids to relieve their post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other wounds. Among the suicide victims was 23-year-old Rory Dalgliesh, an Afghanistan combat veteran who shot himself to death shortly before mustering out of the Marine Corps. His father, Rotunda West resident Michael Dalgliesh, was among those who turned out to hear Steube.
Wearing a yellow shirt bearing Rory's photo and the words "Walking to Remember My Son United States Marine American Hero," Dalgliesh stood at a major intersection in April, for one hour a day, 22 straight days, attempting to draw attention to veteran suicides with flags and signs.
"I came here today because I just wanted to talk to a Congressman about what our government is doing about this," Dalgliesh said. "I wear this shirt every day. I think about Rory every day."
Marijuana has been classified as a dangerous drug with no medicinal value since 1970. More than 2 million Americans have medical marijuana prescriptions today, but the VA is barred from dispensing cannabis to troops and veterans because of the federal law.
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