Millions of U.S. military veterans could benefit from using medical marijuana, according to survey from the Department of Veterans Affairs. That is, if they were allowed to. The VA still mostly prohibits patients from participating in statewide medical marijuana programs since cannabis is illegal under federal law. The department even refuses to conduct research to explore its potential therapeutic benefits.
Vets could easily be one of the largest patient sectors for this alternative medicine. Anyone who needs proof of this should look no further than the compassion programs happening on the west coast.
Local growers there have been donating portions of their crops to former military service members who prefer it to the prescription drugs doled out and paid for by the federal government. So far, thirty states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Yet veterans in those areas, at least those who exclusively lean on the VA for medical care, are getting jammed up when it comes to getting their hands on medical marijuana.
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The herb is a Schedule I dangerous drug in the eyes of Uncle Sam. This means the plant has “no known medical value,” putting VA doctors in a position to bypass this option when consulting with patients. The problem, many physicians say, is a lack of research. Although the VA has conducted a number of studies to expose the negative sides of pot consumption, not much research has been done to reveal its therapeutic potential.
There is a push in Congress to change that. A proposal introduced earlier this year in the House of Representative would force the VA to find out more about the medical powers of cananbis with respect to the treatment of chronic pain and PTSD. Still, lawmakers on the Hill seem to have forgotten that they hold the key to ending this on-going debacle. All they have to do is eliminate from the Controlled Substances Act and the attitude of the VA would change. But forcing the VA to conduct research will do very little to increase access for vets, Curt Cashour, a spokesperson for department told The New York Times.
“The opportunities for VA to conduct marijuana research are limited because of the restrictions imposed by federal law,” Cashour said. “If Congress wants to facilitate more federal research into Schedule 1 controlled substances such as marijuana, it can always choose to eliminate these restrictions.”
As it stands, the VA is conducting a couple of smaller cannabis-related studies. It is looking into whether cannabidiol (CBD), the non-intoxicating compound of the cannabis plant, might be useful for patients suffering from PTSD. It is also examining the use of cannabis is hospice.
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Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin believes the government should be doing more. “We have an opioid crisis, a mental health crisis, and we have limited options with how to address them, so we should be looking at everything possible,” he said.
With or without permission from the government, veterans are going to continue using marijuana. A VA survey found that close to 10 percent of vets have used pot in the past year—half of them for therapeutic purposes. Still, these men and women need the federal restrictions to be lifted so they can have legitimate conversations about medical marijuana with their doctors. Unfortunately, lawmakers are passing the buck.
“You may be a big advocate of medical marijuana, you may feel it has no value,” said Representative Tim Walz of Minnesota. “Either way, you should want the evidence to prove it, and there is no better system to do that research than the VA.”