Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a former Marine Corps officer, re-filed a package of bills in Congress Monday that would push the Department of Veterans Affairs to embrace medical marijuana.
But Moulton, a Democrat who is running for president, also said in an interview that he supports much more significant changes to federal drug policy — declaring that anyone in the United States jailed solely for marijuana possession should be freed with a clear record, that the country should consider decriminalizing the use of hard drugs while cracking down on producers, and that so-called safe consumption sites should be legal.
“An African-American in Louisiana sells $25 of marijuana and gets put in prison for life, whereas Paul Manafort is selling the USA and gets seven years?” Moulton scoffed, referring to the former Trump campaign manager. “It’s ridiculous. Not only should those people be freed, but their records should be expunged. The justice system has just been so backward on this for so long.”
The bills filed Monday by Moulton, which are co-sponsored by Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida and were originally introduced last fall, would make several changes to the VA’s stance on cannabis.
One would enshrine in law a policy that protects the benefits of veterans who tell their VA doctors that they use cannabis. If passed, VA doctors could incorporate marijuana into veterans’ treatment plans, while VA facilities would feature prominent signs explaining that patients cannot be penalized for consuming the drug.
Veterans would still have to seek out non-VA doctors to obtain recommendations allowing them to buy cannabis at state-regulated dispensaries, since marijuana remains illegal under federal law. But Moulton’s office has said the bill would end confusion over the VA’s policy on the drug and ensure that the agency does not reverse its stance.
A second bill from the legislators would direct the VA to conduct a national survey of all veterans and VA health care providers to learn how many veterans are using marijuana and for which conditions, among other data.
The final bill proposed by Moulton and Gaetz would require VA doctors to receive training from medical schools that offer medical marijuana courses.
Moulton said the measures have bipartisan support. And he said they are needed to help veterans reduce their reliance on potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals — such as the cocktail of VA-prescribed drugs he claims took the life of a 30-year-old Marine who served in the platoon Moulton commanded in Iraq.
In private Facebook groups they use to keep in touch following their service, Moulton said, veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments “talk quite regularly about cannabis” as an alternative treatment.
“These aren’t a bunch of druggies,” he said. “These are American heroes trying to get nonaddictive care for their battle scars. …But it’d be a lot better if the Marines I served with could talk with doctors, not just fellow Marines, to get basic medical advice.”
Moulton, who in 2016 bucked the Massachusetts political establishment by endorsing the ballot measure that legalized cannabis, said he remains supportive of broader marijuana reforms pending in Congress. He has cosponsored more than a dozen such bills, including ones that would let states set their own marijuana policies without federal interference and make it easier for banks to work with licensed cannabis operators. (Most other Democrats in the presidential race support similar policies.)
The experience of his own state proves legalization is the best path forward for the country, Moulton argued.
“Since Massachusetts legalized marijuana, there hasn’t been a rash of criminal activity,” Moulton said. “I live in Salem, which is home to the very first dispensary in the state, and the city’s as vibrant as it’s ever been.”
However, Moulton cautioned other progressives against opposing federal legalization bills over a lack of provisions addressing the racially-disproportionate harms of the drug war, arguing that even incremental progress will open the door to further change.
“We have deliberately worked to make these [VA] bills passable so they actually make a difference in people’s lives,” Moulton said. “I think it’s not a wise approach to improving the situation to say it’s all or nothing. Experience doesn’t bear that out — when you start addressing these issues, people become bolder over time. Legalizing marijuana will increase the pressure for criminal justice reform around marijuana convictions, not the other way around.”
Moulton also hit on the hot-button issue of safe consumption facilities, where those addicted to drugs could use them under medical supervision and with sanitary equipment.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker opposes safe consumption facilities, while Andrew Lelling, the US Attorney for the state, warned that anyone involved could be subject to federal prosecution. Baker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Moulton said he strongly supported the idea, pointing to data showing that they can save lives and lead to recovery when paired with medical services — without encouraging increased drug use.
“I support safe injection sites and I think Massachusetts and Boston in particular should lead on them,” he said. “I think Governor Baker is behind the times here, just like he was with medical marijuana.”
Even beyond safe consumption facilities, Moulton said, the US should look at the success of countries such as Portugal that have decriminalized drug possession and use, steering addicts toward treatment instead of jail. However, he said, penalties for those manufacturing deadly drugs such as fentanyl should remain harsh.
“There are places we have to strictly enforce drug laws and places we need to liberalize them,” Moulton said, “but there’s no question that the vast majority of cities and countries that have decriminalized drugs have seen an improvement in their addicted populations.”