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POLITICO Politico Logo
Scientists say the VA and the DOJ have a history of stonewalling anyone who wants to conduct trials of plant-derived cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
Marijuana plants grow at a cultivation facility. | John Locher/AP Photo
11/08/2021 04:30 AM EST
Updated: 11/08/2021 02:22 PM EST
Jason Dunlap found that cannabis eased his PTSD, chronic pain and insomnia, but he hid his pot use from VA doctors, believing it was taboo for veterans relying on government care.
It took some research for the retired Army sergeant first class to determine he could actually tell the VA he was using cannabis, but even then his doctors couldn’t tell him how to use it safely and effectively. Dunlap, 42, has instead turned to YouTube, research papers online, dispensary workers — and even actor Jim Belushi, now a notable cannabis industry figure who offers tutorials.
Millions of veterans are self-medicating their war-caused ailments with marijuana, and they are frustrated the VA continues to dismiss the drug’s possible benefits. The VA will not expand the piecemeal cannabis research it is undertaking, despite recent bipartisan calls from Congress, doctors and veterans. And without that research, the VA continues to deny cannabis recommendations to veterans in 36 states that allow medical marijuana.
Veterans say that has forced many to suffer, while some researchers suggest the VA also may be ignoring potential ill effects when used inappropriately.
“It’s doing wonders, but also there’s so very little we know about what’s going on,” said Dunlap, who lives in Maryland.
The federal government may be resistant not just because research could open the door to cannabis use by veterans — but lead to wider legalization. The lack of empirical, FDA-approved research is one of the most-cited reasons for many lawmakers, even President Joe Biden, to refrain from taking federal action on cannabis.
By Bruce Kennedy
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would instruct the VA to study cannabis for PTSD, depression and a number of other diseases vets often suffer from, just one of multiple proposals in the House and Senate that would expand research into cannabis for vets. Despite broad bipartisan support, however, none has reached a floor vote in either chamber.
“The VA keeps saying, ‘We have the authority, we don’t need you to micromanage us.’ But we do — because they’re not doing their job,” Correa said.
Correa’s bill, which advanced out of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday, is just one of multiple proposals in the House and Senate that would expand research into cannabis for vets. Also on Thursday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced an amendment to a must-pass defense spending bill that would allow VA physicians to recommend medical marijuana under state-regulated programs and bolster research. Despite broad bipartisan support, however, none of these proposals have reached a floor vote in either chamber.
The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has exacerbated the demand for more understanding of using cannabis for treatment. Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line, which is operated by the VA, increased by six percent in the weeks immediately following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and veterans of America’s longest war use cannabis at the Advocates, Hill aides and former VA staff told POLITICO the VA defers on this issue to the Justice Department, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. A Schedule I drug by definition has no medicinal value, which in turn prevents the VA from treating patients with cannabis.
For veterans receiving VA health care, cannabis still occupies a gray area. Official guidance states that veterans can talk to their VA doctor about their cannabis use without repercussions, but many vets say they fear mentioning it because it is still federally illegal. VA doctors, meanwhile, still cannot prescribe cannabis or issue medical marijuana cards in any of the 36 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
An average of 18 veterans a day committed suicide in 2018,
“They just hear the word ‘cannabis’ and recoil,” said one scientist who spoke to POLITICO but requested their name be withheld in order to not jeopardize ongoing efforts to do research with the VA. “It’s got to be the VA Secretary ordering his staff to do it, and [the] VA Secretary probably won’t do that unless he gets the political cover from Congress.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) says his bill would give the VA that cover. This is the second time he’s introduced the bill in Congress — but it has yet to receive a hearing.
“I think sometimes on something controversial, agencies want to make sure they have legal cover,” said Sullivan, who cosponsors the bill with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “That’s what we’re trying to provide them.”
By Bryan Bender
A similar bill was approved by the House VA committee last year and garnered more than 100 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, but did not receive a floor vote.
“It drives me crazy,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the unofficial cannabis czar on Capitol Hill, who has worked on numerous pieces of cannabis legislation that would expand medical marijuana research — one of which passed the House last year but did not make it to the president’s desk. “[The VA] could, and they should.”
Gruber received approval from the FDA for a cannabis study that was not veterans-specific in 2015, but says the DEA turned around and denied the study proposal, and it was another two and a half years before she finally received approval. Other scientists say they’ve been told by state VA medical facilities that they could not post FDA-sanctioned flyers calling for volunteers to participate in FDA-approved cannabis studies.
“There’s an awful lot of gaps in the research,” Gruber said.
She said that cannabis can be a panacea for some — helping with sleep, PTSD and more — but it also has the potential to be a problem for others, especially veterans with a family history of certain mental health disorders. It’s a big problem, she said, that America does not have comprehensive scientific data on something its veterans are using so widely.
”Imagine a world where people are using anything at that level without supporting information from an empirically sound source to guide them,” Gruber added.
Without research, lawmakers don’t have hard facts on the pros and cons of cannabis, and that unknown makes them loathe to back policy changes they believe could come back to bite them.
The VA’s legal standing is also a gray area. The agency already conducts research into synthetic cannabinoids, and holds a Schedule I research license — which theoretically gives it the ability to research any Schedule I drug. But a Schedule I drug has “no medical use,” and therein lies the hangup: If the VA researches cannabis for medical purposes, like the NIH proposes, they could run into conflict with the DOJ’s definition of a Schedule I drug.
“I’d probably stay completely the hell away from it [if I was the VA],” Correa said. “Why would you get in the middle of a dogfight?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the timeline for when Staci Gruber received approval from the FDA and DEA for a cannabis study that was not veterans-specific. She received approval from the FDA in 2015, but the DEA denied the study proposal. It was another two and a half years before she finally received full approval.
Medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids for veterans
Like many veterans, the rigors of military service took a toll on Air Force veteran and DAV life member Jarid Watson’s body. He’s not sure when exactly it happened—perhaps during physical training or while loading and unloading cargo planes as a member of the world-famous U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds—but at some point during his nearly 12 years in uniform, a bone growth on the ball joint of his hip tore his labrum and damaged much of the surrounding cartilage.
The injury brought on chronic pain for Watson and eventually led to his medical retirement from the military in 2016. It also severely affected his sleep, which in turn negatively influenced his motivation and mood. As a father, husband, entrepreneur and student, he knew something had to be done to combat the pain and restore his ability to get a good night’s rest, for the benefit of himself, his family, his career and his studies.
For Watson, there was only one choice.
The Cannabis cure
DAV calls for more research into medical cannabis as an alternative pain relief option for veterans with chronic pain, PTSD and TBIs.
Like many veterans, the rigors of military service took a toll on Air Force veteran Jarid Watson’s body. He’s not sure when exactly it happened-perhaps during physical training or while loading and unloading cargo planes as a member of the world-famous U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds… continue reading
Marijuana’s promising moment
Iraq veteran finds cannabis helpful as Washington debates how to move forward.
Like many veterans, service took a toll on Ryan Rasnick.
While he was driving in western Anbar Province in Iraq in 2009, an RKG-3—a Russian-made anti-tank hand grenade—was hurled directly in front of his vehicle. Rasnick quickly slammed on the brakes. And while the maneuver likely saved his and other lives, it violently jostled his neck causing longterm damage… continue reading
Is medical cannabis legal?
Over the past two decades, the legal status of medical marijuana in many states has evolved to reflect the shifting attitude towards cannabis as a viable medicine.
Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia have state-approved medical marijuana programs, as do Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two additional states have passed medical cannabis legislation that is expected to be fully implemented at a later date, while seven states permit cannabinol (CBD) oil—the non-psychoactive component in cannabis—for medical purposes only.
Visit the National Conference of State Legislatures to find which states have medical marijuana programs.
However, physicians face ethical and legal barriers when deciding to recommend medical marijuana for veterans—while it may be permitted where they live, it remains a federally prohibited drug.
What types of conditions can medical marijuana treat?
The FDA notes increasing interest in the use of cannabis to treat a variety of medical conditions, including glaucoma, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and certain seizure disorders. Of the states that allow medical marijuana, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder are often qualifying medical ailments.
What are other possible benefits?
Advocates and researchers believe that legal access to medical cannabis could potentially alleviate the opioid addiction crisis that has been reported among veterans.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 65% of veterans suffer from chronic pain and are twice as likely to die from an accidental prescription opioid overdose as non-veterans. As such, many veterans are looking for alternatives to highly addictive and potentially dangerous opioid medications—like medical marijuana.
According to USA Today, almost every VA facility has experienced a steady drop in its opioid prescription rates since 2012, with an overall decline of 41 percent. The VA is also continuing its efforts to promote safe prescribing practices and to address the broader opioid epidemic in the United States, which includes alternative therapies for its patients.
Are there efforts underway to legalize medical cannabis for veterans within VA?
VA scientists are able to conduct research on marijuana benefits and risks, and potential for abuse, under regulatory approval. Any questions related to research can be addressed to [email protected] .
Several bills introduced in the 116 th Congress, including the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 (H.R. 5520), the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act (S. 3409), and the Veterans Equal Access Act (H.R. 1647) sought reforms concerning medical marijuana for veterans. While these bills did not ultimately make it into law, new legislation is likely to be introduced in the 117 th Congress.
What is DAV’s stance on medical cannabis for veterans?
DAV Resolution 023, passed by DAV members in 2018, calls for research into the medical efficacy of medical cannabis for treating conditions of service-disabled veterans. Additionally, as mentioned above, DAV has supported legislation which seeks to do this. This is an important issue for many disabled veterans and DAV members—and leadership believes it is critical to enhance the base of knowledge surrounding the potential benefits and risks.
Can veterans get medical marijuana through the VA?
Currently, VA doctors cannot provide or recommend medical marijuana for veterans as the federal status for cannabis remains a Schedule 1 substance, making the drug illegal in the federal government’s eyes. Because of this, veterans should never bring any type of marijuana into a VA facility, even when provided through a state-sanctioned medical marijuana program.
However, veterans participating in a state-sanctioned medical marijuana program will not be denied VA benefits, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA providers are able to discuss cannabis use with veteran patients and adjust care and treatment plans as needed. Veterans are encouraged to discuss medical marijuana use with their VA providers as part of their confidential medical record.
The VA will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source, nor will VA providers complete paperwork or forms required for a veteran to participate in a state-approved medical marijuana program.
However, anecdotal feedback from veterans shows that VA’s directives and actual patient experiences sometimes differ in cases where a prescribed medical marijuana user walks into a federal (VA) facility.
View VA’s full directive on medical marijuana here. If you have questions regarding this policy please contact [email protected] .
Is it true that I could lose the right to buy or own firearms if I use medical cannabis?
Marijuana, despite medical and recreational legalization in some states, is still illegal under federal law.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “Any person who uses or is addicted to marijuana, regardless of whether his or her state has passed legislation authorizing marijuana for medicinal purposes is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance and is prohibited by Federal law from possessing firearms or ammunition.”
Some states have remedial steps to restore 2 nd Amendment rights for registered medical marijuana users. But it is important to remember that even in states where it is legal, the federal law still applies.