Cannabis medicine offers life-changing relief from a kaleidoscope of conditions, but recently much of the public’s focus has been on its remarkable pain-relieving qualities and its utility in easing the symptoms of opiate withdrawal and supplementing or replacing opioid painkillers.
This is no coincidence; the fascination with alternatives to opioid painkillers comes at a time when they’re wreaking unprecedented damage on society, with overdose death rates spiking across the country. Cannabis not only offers an alternative to opioids, it allows many pain patients using opioids to reduce their effective dose, which also reduces the risk of potentially lethal complications or overdose.
Few groups are in more dire need of pain relief than veterans: A report from the Veterans Administration found 60 percent of returning combat veterans (and 50 percent of senior veterans) struggle with chronic pain, versus the national average of 30 percent, and many veterans suffer from both PTSD and chronic pain. The VA’s primary solution for these conditions? Opioids.
It has been documented how the VA heavily overprescribed opioid medication and fueled the current epidemic. Now veterans are seeking alternatives, with an American Legion phone survey finding nearly a quarter of veteran household respondents use medicinal cannabis.
But that medical marijuana use is often illegal (plus always illegal federally) and can jeopardize a veteran’s access to their other medications, although it does not affect their benefits. While the VA issued new guidance in 2017 urging VA care providers to discuss their patients’ cannabis use and any possible contraindications with other medication, they still cannot recommend or prescribe cannabis medication.
The reason, of course, is federal prohibition. But now the VA is using prohibition as the explanation for its decision not to study the impact of cannabis medicine on veterans.
From the Washington Post:
In a letter to U.S. Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said VA’s ability to research medical marijuana is hampered by the fact that the drug is illegal federally. Shulkin’s letter came in response to an inquiry by 10 Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The letter asks Shulkin to commit the VA to investigating whether medical marijuana can help veterans suffering from PTSD and chronic pain and identify barriers to doing so.
“VA is committed to researching and developing effective ways to help Veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions,” Shulkin wrote in a response to the members of Congress. “However, federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects.”
It’s clearly true that the federal government’s prohibition on cannabis creates some obstacles for those looking to research its effects. That said, research is conducted on cannabis all the time.
John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post that the VA was trying to pass the buck by blaming prohibition for its decision not to research medical cannabis.
“Obviously it is federally illegal, but there are no restrictions on doing scientific research on it. Universities do this all the time and there’s a process to go through,” he said, noting that the National Institute on Drug Abuse funds cannabis research.
“It’s really a cop-out for the VA to say, ‘oh, we’re not doing work on this because of federal law’ when actually federal law allows them to do that.”
Rep. Walz also said he found the response “disappointing and unacceptable,” echoing Hudak’s sentiment that the VA’s response was disingenuous and false.
“VA’s response not only failed to answer our simple question, but they made a disheartening attempt to mislead me, my colleagues and the veteran community in the process” by stating that the VA is restricted from conducting marijuana research. Walz, a veteran, said he plans to send another letter to Shulkin asking for further clarification.
Support for cannabis medicine in the veteran community is growing. Even the conservative American Legion passed a resolution urging the federal government to allow safe access for vets and that organization’s survey data shows that over 80 percent of veterans support federal legalization of medical cannabis.
Ultimately Congress will need to do something, just as it will need to act on the broader issue of federal prohibition. But the most recent effort to address veterans access stalled: the Veterans Equal Access amendment passed the Senate Appropriations committee but was killed by House Republicans.
So for now, all veterans seeking cannabis medicine can really rely on is each other.
TELL US, are you a veteran who uses cannabis medicine? How does it help you?