Veterans organizations are asking congress to open up access to medical marijuana and prioritize studying the alleged therapeutic benefits of the plant to better serve the nation’s armed forces.
“When the IED went off, I just sort of laid there. It was really quiet except for the ringing sound—and I didn’t even know I was bleeding.” Shawn tells us about the incident that led to his leg and back injury. The Albuquerque resident was hit with a handful of sharp, searing-hot shrapnel in Afghanistan that left him in the hospital for months. He now walks with a cane and a limp. “I wanted to kill myself for years after the accident, but cannabis pulled me out of that funk. It saved my life.”
Shawn’s story isn’t as unique as one would hope. There are countless soldiers who are facing daily struggles as a direct result of their service in armed combat on behalf of the U.S. government, and many of them have turned to marijuana to help mitigate some of the damage done. Now, advocates and veterans groups are calling on the government to give vets access to medical cannabis to treat service-related injuries.
Joint Committee Hearings on Veterans Affairs
Last week congressional committees heard testimony from veterans service organizations that are asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to put efforts into researching the medical benefits of cannabis for treating health problems specifically faced by veterans including PTSD, depression, anxiety and pain management.
“Veterans consistently and passionately have communicated that cannabis offers effective help in tackling some of the most pressing injuries we face when returning from war,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Jeremy Butler told a joint House and Senate committee. “In our latest Member Survey, over 80 percent of IAVA members supported legalization for medicinal use. Across party lines, medicinal cannabis has been rapidly increasing in support, yet our national policies are outdated, research is lacking, and stigma persists.”
Greg Heun, National Commander at American Veterans (AMVETS) told lawmakers that several federal agencies have attested to the medicinal qualities of various cannabinoids at different times, and scientists have found correlations between the use of medical cannabis and opioid use reduction. “Cannabis is currently legal and regulated for adult and medicinal use in more than 35 states, representing more than half of the U.S. population, yet veterans have no way to access cannabis through the Department of Veterans Affairs and risk loss of employment or imprisonment for cannabis use in certain circumstances,” said Heun.
Heun said AMVETS wants Congress to remove barriers from cannabis research, recognizing “the inappropriateness of cannabis’s current scheduling and removing it from the Controlled Substance Act.”
Just days after lawmakers heard the testimonies from veterans groups, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) announced that he’d introduced legislation that would allow veterans to discuss cannabis as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment. “Veterans are twice as likely to die from an opioid overdose than civilian Americans,” Moulton tweeted. “Today, I introduced legislation that would destigmatize the use of medical marijuana among veterans as a safer, non-addictive alternative for chronic pain and anxiety.” The bill would also make it illegal for a veteran to lose health coverage for cannabis use.
According to a press release, the congressman’s bill would not only remove barriers that block veterans from accessing medical cannabis—it would even “encourage veterans to openly discuss medicinal cannabis with their health care providers, and it would make it illegal for veterans to lose their benefits for using cannabis.”
While policy changes have made it possible for VA doctors to discuss medical cannabis with their patients, it wasn’t always like that, and many VA physicians appear to be slow to adopt the new environment of transparency around the topic. Before the rule change, patients who were caught using cannabis could lose their health benefits. Now those benefits are protected for patients enrolled in a state medical cannabis program. But VA doctors are still barred from recommending cannabis or helping a patient to obtain the drug.
“Veterans chose to serve our country, and many will deal with resulting health issues for the rest of their lives. It’s our responsibility to ensure that returning service members have access to every solution that allows them to live free of pain or anxiety,” said Moulton.
In 2017 New Mexico lawmakers attempted to pass a bill that would have made a number of changes to the state’s medical cannabis laws. One of the most controversial points in the bill would have given all veterans an automatic pass to enter the state’s Medical Cannabis Program without a doctor’s recommendation. The bill ultimately fizzled after being approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Veterans Look Forward
There are some signs that the establishment is willing to reform policies around medical cannabis. In February the Veterans Health Administration announced it had launched a new website that would communicate up-to-date cannabis science and news to the public with the aim of finding consensus on the topic.
Systematically Testing the Evidence on Marijuana (STEM) says it is an “independent, methodologically rigorous, and updated cannabis evidence resource for the health care sector that synthesizes what is known from research and what is left to learn about the health effects of cannabis.”
Some of the data that the agency has already included on the easily digestible site says that cannabis shows potential in treating neuropathic pain and PTSD. It’s becoming clearer that these agencies are ready to play ball but are waiting for broader drug reform at the federal level first.