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Top GOP And Dem Lawmakers Push Veterans Medical Marijuana Study

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A key U.S. House panel is considering legislation to dramatically expand studies on marijuana’s potential medical benefits for military veterans.

Filed by Veterans’ Affairs Committee GOP Chairman Phil Roe of Tennessee and Congressman Tim Walz of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the committee, the bill would encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to “conduct and support research relating to the efficacy and safety” of medical cannabis “on the health outcomes of covered veterans diagnosed with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions.”

Research would be done on full plant marijuana as well as extracts, and involve “at least three different strains of cannabis with significant variants in phenotypic traits and various ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol in chemical composition.”

Studies would examine “varying methods of cannabis delivery, including topical application, combustible and noncombustible inhalation, and ingestion.”

It would require VA to preserve all data collected from the studies and issue a report to Congress within 180 days that includes a plan for implementation of research. The department would also have to send updates no less than annually for five years.

The panel’s Health Subcommittee will hold a hearing on the proposal on Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

While VA is already permitted to participate in cannabis research under current law, its leadership has been reluctant. Recently deposed Sec. David Shulkin, for example, repeatedly claimed in public remarks that Congress needs to act before the department can refer veterans to cannabis studies.

V.A. Doesn’t Understand Marijuana Laws, So Veterans Lose Access

Now, bipartisan leadership of the committee that oversees VA is stepping in to provide direction with the new bill.

“As so many veterans are currently using cannabis for medicinal purposes, it is important that clinicians are able to fully advise veterans on the potential impacts, harms, and benefits of cannabis use on those with various diagnoses including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain,” Walz wrote in a letter circulated to colleagues seeking cosponsorship for the new bill.

“As a physician, I am keenly aware of the need to look for opioid alternatives to treat patients’ chronic pain,” said Roe said in a press release. “Since serving as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I’ve heard from many veterans, both with physical and invisible wounds, who believe medical cannabis could benefit them. This is why I support the department researching cannabis just like any other drug to see if this alternative therapy would truly benefit patients.”

Several veterans advocacy organizations submitted testimony in support of the legislation.

“With the ongoing opioid epidemic, an increase in veterans who suffer from chronic pain, the constant co-morbidity of chronic pain with PTSD and a continuing list of other health ailments –– all while VA is under constant scrutiny for over-prescribing pharmaceuticals, while still managing to prescribe opioids at nearly half the rate of the private sector, VA must be proactive in finding solutions to responsibly treat veterans,” an official with Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States said. “VA must conduct research on medical marijuana to determine what is in the best interest of veteran patients.”

The American Legion is also on board, saying it “fully supports research for potential medicinal use of cannabis and responsible action in the interest of advancing medicine, particularly for veterans who report relief from service-connected conditions, thanks to this important drug.”

The organization, which represents more than 2.4 million military veterans, released a poll last year finding that 81% percent of veterans said they “want to have cannabis as a federally-legal treatment.”

“The opioid crisis in America is having a disproportionate impact on our veterans, according to a 2011 study of the VA system, as they contend with the facts that poorly-treated chronic pain increases suicide risk, and veterans are twice as likely to succumb to accidental opioid overdoses,” the group’s new testimony says. “Traumatic brain injury and PTSD remain leading causes of death and disability within the veteran community. VA officials report that about 60 percent of veterans returning from combat deployments and 50 percent of older veterans suffer from chronic pain compared to 30 percent of Americans nationwide. Many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain – especially those of the Iraq and Afghanistan generation – have told The American Legion that they have achieved improved health care outcomes by foregoing VA-prescribed opioids in favor of medical cannabis.”

Several veterans groups pushed for updates to VA’s marijuana policies at hearings earlier this year.

Veterans Groups Battle Medical Marijuana Ban On Capitol Hill

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Tom Angell is the editor of Marijuana Moment. A 20-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority. Previously he reported for Marijuana.com and MassRoots, and handled media relations and campaigns for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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