MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In another sign of the growing acceptance of marijuana in this country, the Senate's Democratic leader, Charles Schumer of New York, said last week that he would introduce legislation that would decriminalize marijuana on the federal level. His announcement came on the heels of a bipartisan proposal that would allow the Veterans Administration to study cannabis to treat chronic pain and the symptoms of PTSD.
That measure was cosponsored by Republican Congressman Phil Roe of Tennessee, chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and Congressman Tim Walz of Minnesota, the ranking Democratic member. And Congressman Walz is with us on the phone now.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
TIM WALZ: And thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: So you've been pushing the VA to actively pursue the study of medical marijuana for veterans. Why?
WALZ: Yeah. And well, I think - and I've watched this over my 12-year career in Congress. We didn't even use to bury with honors our warriors who committed suicide, let alone embrace things like acupuncture and yoga. And what's happening now is the VA is moving forward, and they've been a little slow, I think, both in society in general and then in the VA the idea of exploring every avenue to relieve pain. And certainly, I think that was heightened with a sense of trying to move away from the overprescription of opioids. So it seems like the timing is right, but it's time for the VA to do what they can quite honestly already do but are choosing not to - research and provide us data to show if it's working or not.
MARTIN: Just a couple of months ago, though, the VA rebuffed your efforts. I mean, they actually sent you a letter in January saying that they weren't going to do this. So has something changed?
WALZ: Yeah, something has changed, and I think now is - is that I went back and built a stronger bipartisan coalition. But I want to be clear. The VA research arm is the best in the world. And what ended up happening was that that letter was like something I had never seen before, but it was buffoonish what they sent back. And I - very clearly, it was the interjection of - Attorney General Sessions reached in in that void where we didn't have the leadership maybe we should've over there and kind of squashed it down. So this is an ideological reach into the VA. And I think what's changed is the backlash. I built the coalition with folks like the American Legion. They surveyed their members and found that 92 percent said take a look at this and find out. And when veterans tell me they're getting relief, I believe them. So I think that's what's changed.
MARTIN: Have you received any direct information from veterans about this issue? What are they telling you?
WALZ: Yeah, it's overwhelmingly in support of it. You have to have evidence-based data on it, but I have yet to run into anyone - we're hearing it a lot. We're getting relief. You need to look at this. We need to move forward. And it's coming across generations of veterans.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have a position yet on the Senate minority leader's efforts to decriminalize marijuana altogether?
WALZ: Yeah, I fall into that camp. I think there's...
MARTIN: Which camp, the decriminalization camp?
WALZ: The camp of decriminalization, yes. I think that that is probably the right direction to go. The racial bias that ends up happening because of the way our laws are right now needs to be corrected. So I think that's just another sign of where things are moving. And it's very frustrating for people where I'm on border state where we have medicinal cannabis in Minnesota and neighboring states do not. Veterans feel like they're forced to be criminalized simply because they live two miles west of where they could've been. And I feel that Attorney General Sessions knows that if the VA does this and the VA starts prescribing, well, then we have medicinal cannabis in all 50 states and territories.
MARTIN: That's Representative Tim Walz. He's the ranking Democratic member of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for talking with us.
WALZ: Yeah, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.