A key congressional committee last week approved a bill that would authorize federal research into the therapeutic applications of cannabis for military veterans. Under the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be required to conduct clinical trials into the potential of cannabis as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain among the nation’s veterans.
The bill was approved by the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Nov. 4 by vote of 18 to 11, receiving support from all the panel’s Democratic members as well as one Republican. The committee approved previous versions of the bill last year and in 2018, but the legislation has yet to be passed by the full Congress and signed into law.
“Our veterans are no strangers to confronting challenges, and that’s why Congress needs to explore alternative treatment options,” Rep. Lou Correa, a California Democrat and sponsor of the bill, told Marijuana Moment. “The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2021 meets veterans where they already are and opens a new door for federal policy that supports treatment options preferred by veterans.”
“How can we not try to gather the vast resources of Congress and the federal government to explore alternative treatment options like cannabis when veterans themselves are telling us that’s what they need,” Correa added. “To not support this legislation would be to defer once again of our obligation to care for those who have sacrificed so much to help protect our nation.”
The VA has acknowledged that PTSD and trauma experienced on the battlefield can contribute to a higher rate of suicidal ideation. Anecdotal evidence shows that cannabis can help ease the symptoms of PTSD, but clinical evidence has so far been inconclusive. In addition, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has advised Congress that there is “substantial evidence” that cannabis has medicinal value as a treatment for chronic pain and urged lawmakers to fund research into the potential risks and benefits of medical marijuana.
Officials with the VA opposed the legislation at last week’s hearing, citing difficulties conducting research under the terms of the bill. But committee chair Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California, said the agency has so far failed to take meaningful action without direction from Congress.
“We simply must equip VA and its healthcare providers with scientific guidance about the potential impacts, benefits and/or dangers of cannabis used to treat chronic pain and PTSD,” Takano said ahead of the vote. “The VA tells us that it is monitoring smaller research projects on cannabis outside VA. This really is not sufficient.”
Many Veterans Turn to Cannabis for Relief
With scientific data lacking, many veterans affected by the continuing challenges of military service self-medicate with cannabis to help ease conditions including chronic pain, insomnia, and PTSD. But so far, the VA has resisted calls from veterans and their advocates to investigate the therapeutic potential of cannabis. Perhaps even worse, many veterans who have turned to medical cannabis have had prescription medications withheld by their VA physicians.
“The very populations who have the greatest need are often the ones who are the most understudied,” Staci Gruber, director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told Politico.
Andy Meiars, a founder of the Battle Brothers Foundation (BBF), tells Cannabis Now that the nonprofit organization is helping to fund cannabis research in partnership with the California licensed, veteran-owned brand Helmand Valley Growers Company, which donates 100% of all profits to support studies investigating the therapeutic possibilities of cannabis for veterans. Working with medical research and data company NiaMedic, BBF is funding a study that will determine if cannabis treatment can be beneficial in reducing symptoms in patients with treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress, with the University of California Irvine signed on as the participating research center.
Together, Helmand Valley Growers Company and BBF are committed to getting cannabis recognized as a legitimate medicine by the VA healthcare system. So far, the company has donated $60,000 to the cause, with plans to triple its contribution by the end of the year. Meiars says that the research team will soon be enrolling veterans for the study and sees Veterans Day as a fitting opportunity to explain the importance of access to cannabis for veterans.
“You’ve asked us vets to risk our lives in defense of our country. Many of our peers came back missing pieces of their minds and with broken bodies. Cannabis is a special plant, a real alternative to opioids that can make a difference healing veterans,” he wrote in an email. “We’re trying to make it possible for them to have access not only to cannabis, but for the better quality of life that they fought for. Sleep, a day without pain, everyone deserves that, especially veterans.”
Despite last week’s approval by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, before becoming law the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act must still be passed by the full House and Senate and gain the approval of President Joe Biden, whose administration has expressed opposition to the legislation.