Pressure is mounting for federal authorities to give military veterans access to medical cannabis to treat service-related injuries and illnesses. Lawmakers seem ready to reform, but the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is fighting progress at every turn.
Last month the VA gave written testimony at a Senate committee hearing in opposition to proposed legislation that would require the agency to conduct clinical trials to analyze the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for PTSD and chronic pain. Under the bipartisan VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, the VA would have to test seven varieties of marijuana at different levels of potency.
The VA said that approach is unscientific. “The proposed legislation is not consistent with the VA’s practice of ensuring scientific merit as the basis for a randomized clinical trial,” wrote VA Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Health for Community Care Mark Upton. He went on to say that current “scientific evidence suggests smaller, early phase, controlled clinical trials with a focused set of specific aims are optimal to determine proof of concept” of medical cannabis. He wrote that smaller human trials will avoid unnecessary risks.
“Further,” wrote Upton, “the scientific peer review system would not favor simultaneously studying seven variants of cannabis and their effects on varying diagnoses without first demonstrating a specific rationale for each of the queries.”
Upton also said that the agency was already conducting a study using CBD in conjunction with psychotherapy to treat PTSD and that the proposed trials would therefore be redundant, despite the fact that the proposed trials would include the study of THC as well.
VA’s History With Weed
As a federal agency, the VA has seemed reluctant to go along with allowing soldiers to have access to medical cannabis. In 2018 the department made the smallest concession by giving direction to VA doctors in states that have legalized medical cannabis to discuss how marijuana could impact other treatments that the patient is undergoing. The department was explicitly not changing its stance on cannabis, though. Doctors would still be barred from recommending pot or “completing paperwork for veteran participation in state marijuana programs.”
The biggest concession was the announcement that the VA’s new policy would not allow doctors to keep veterans from accessing healthcare due to their legal use of cannabis. This was considered a huge win for advocates, but the department hasn’t budged since, even though there has been plenty of pressure from legislators.
Beyond the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, a bill was introduced in April called the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act that would legalize—for five years—the possession of medical cannabis for combat veterans and allow VA doctors to recommend the drug to patients in states where it’s legal.
Congress again showed support for giving vets access to medical pot by approving spending bills with attached riders that would bar the VA from retaliating against doctors who recommended medical marijuana. And the House Committee on Appropriations recently approved a bill that clarifies that veterans are eligible for VA home loans even if they have worked for cannabis companies.
Vets Will Benefit
Researchers at UNM are currently looking at whether medical cannabis can treat combat-related PTSD. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, there are currently 63,830 medical cannabis patients enrolled in the state’s program under the qualifying condition of PTSD. They make up more than half of the enrolled patients—more than those suffering from chronic pain, cancer and AIDS combined.
We spoke to an Albuquerque veteran who wished to remain anonymous. He injured his back during a tour in Afghanistan when a bomb went off near his vehicle. He struggled with opioid dependency after he got home and a VA doctor prescribed painkillers. He turned to cannabis and yoga to treat his chronic pain symptoms and to mitigate his addiction. “Medical marijuana has changed my life,” he said. “The government put this on me. It’s wrong to keep soldiers from accessing medicine.”
Back in 2017 the New Mexico Legislature attempted to pass a bill that would have allowed all veterans to automatically qualify for admittance into the Medical Cannabis Program with or without a doctor’s recommendation. The bill ultimately failed, but it brought the topic into the light of public discussion.
According to the VA, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who returned from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are diagnosed with PTSD every year. About 12 percent of veterans of the Gulf War and 15 percent of Vietnam veterans are diagnosed with the disorder every year. The department said sexual harassment—which can lead to PTSD—was reported by 55 percent of women and 38 percent of men who use VA healthcare. Sexual assault was reported by 23 percent of women soldiers.
Last March the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) funded a study that was published in the journal PLOS One. It was the first FDA-regulated, placebo-controlled, double-blind study to test the effects of marijuana use among veterans who had been diagnosed with PTSD. The study showed significant improvements of symptoms related to PTSD for all participants at all levels of THC and CBD dose. The strange part was that even those who received the placebo did well—so well that none of the active treatment groups statistically outperformed placebo. The researchers concluded that the trial was too brief. “Additional well-controlled and adequately powered studies with cannabis suitable for FDA drug development are needed,” wrote the study’s authors.
It’s a shame that our nation has done so little to help those who have given the most for this country. These soldiers were willing to give their lives to defend the Constitution, and when they return worse for wear, they are given addictive drugs and denied access to cannabis. Hopefully, the VA will open its ears and listen to the many lawmakers, advocates, scientists and soldiers begging them for more research in this area.