Veteran Medical Cannabis Bills Shot Down

May 10, 2019
Abstract / Synopsis: 

Three bills to provide access to medical cannabis that veterans across the country hoped to move through Congress were unceremoniously withdrawn from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing on Wednesday, May 8.

Meanwhile, 18 other veteran-related bills were passed out of committee (1). Ironically, two of those 18 bills concerned veteran’s suicide prevention – an issue many vets say is connected to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and opioid addiction, two conditions that cannabis has been successfully used to treat.

The three bills dropped from the hearing were the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 (2), the Veterans Equal Access Act (3), and the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act (4).

The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act is now over a year old, with 55 bipartisan sponsors. It authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct and support research on the efficacy and safety of certain forms of cannabis and cannabis delivery for veterans enrolled in the VA health care system diagnosed with conditions such as chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Veterans Equal Access Act directs the VA to authorize VA health care providers to provide veterans with recommendations and opinions regarding participation in their state's marijuana programs, and complete forms reflecting those recommendations and opinions.

It has languished in Congress for over two years.

The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act prohibits the secretary of veterans’ affairs from denying a veteran benefits if the veteran is participating in a state-approved marijuana program. It was introduced in the first week of April.

Another bill related to veterans’ use of cannabis, the Veterans Medical Safe Harbor Act (5), is also sitting idle in the Senate Judiciary Committee since its introduction on February 12 by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI).

Demand by veterans for cannabis has reached an all-time high. According to a 2019 member study by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) (6), 83 percent of members believe that medical cannabis should be legalized; 85 percent agreed that the VA should allow research into cannabis as a treatment option; and 91 percent agreed that they would be interested in using cannabinoids or cannabinoid products as a treatment option if available.

A 2017 survey (7) of the two-million member American Legion found that 92 percent of members supported medical cannabis research, and 82 percent supported legalizing medical cannabis.

But the VA claims its hands are tied. As long as the federal government lists cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance, it is illegal for VA health care providers to recommend it or help veterans get it. VA clinicians may only prescribe medications that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical use; most products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), or other cannabinoids are not approved by the FDA.

That sounds like veterans are on notice that cannabis is off the table for discussion. But that’s not the case. Further confusing the matter, the VA also says that vets are encouraged to discuss marijuana use with their providers, who will record that discussion as part of their confidential reports; and that VA scientists may conduct research on marijuana benefits and risks, plus the potential for abuse, under regulatory approval.

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