Although the latest federal data shows opioids killed more people in 2016 than the almost two-decade-long Vietnam War, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to dole out prescription painkillers with enthusiasm. These drugs are given to soldiers suffering from moderate to severe pain. Many are now addicted to these pills. Some veterans are saying that they experienced better and safer results from the use of medical marijuana. They would like the federal government to legalize the cannabis plant in an effort to reduce the risk of addiction and deadly overdose.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Yet, because the Drug Enforcement Administration still considers it a Schedule I dangerous drug under the Controlled Substances Act, VA Clinics have not been permitted to discuss or provide marijuana recommendations for their patients.
But last December, the US Department of Veterans Affairs issued new guidelines on the medical marijuana issue, giving VA physicians permission to “discuss” cannabis treatment with their patients. Yet these health care professionals “are prohibited from completing forms or registering veterans for participation in a state-approved marijuana program.”
Even VA Secretary David Shulkin admits that medical marijuana might be able to help veterans. Still, there are no plans to change the current policy on this matter until the federal government chimes in. That’s not happening anytime soon.
Congress has been dragging its feet on the marijuana debate for years. Even while President Obama was running the show with a “hands off” approach to legal weed, federal lawmakers still refused to discuss it. Now the Trump administration is in control. And along with that comes US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man who does not believe good people smoke marijuana.
Earlier this week, while speaking at a Heritage Foundation event, Session told those in attendance that he believes the bulk of the opioid crisis was brought on by marijuana. “The [Drug Enforcement Administration] said a huge percentage of the heroin addictions start with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number – they had it as high as 80 percent – we think a lot of this is starting with marijuana or other drugs, too,” he said.
A handful of studies from the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence to the American Journal of Public Health discount this claim. But the attorney general, who has fought against marijuana since his days in the Senate, never seems to miss an opportunity to speak out against weed.
Unfortunately, there is some concern that Sessions’ anti-marijuana stance (along with his threats of a federal crackdown) may discourage doctors employed at the VA to discuss medical marijuana with patients. Many of these health care professionals are already refusing to talk about marijuana, in spite of the new VA directive. This is due, in part, to the lingering social stigmas associated with the cannabis plant. It’s still not medicine, some might say.
Army veterans Ryan Miller, who was wounded in Iraq, told CNBC that the faster the federal government legalizes medical marijuana, the more veterans it will save. Miller, who lost his leg after a combat injury, is optimistic about this reform happening soon. He says it’s just a matter of time.
“We all know it’s going to happen; it’s just when,” Miller said. “If this happens in a year, there will be people that will probably be alive in a couple years as opposed to dead.”