One way to improve Veteran health care is to end 'reefer madness'

One way to improve Veteran health care is to end 'reefer madness'
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There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to medical marijuana. Confusion is fine when it breeds curiosity, research, and progress. With medical marijuana, however, the confusion is resulting in a fallback to stigmas, to “reefer madness” where scientific findings are replaced with “drugs are bad," “marijuana is a gateway drug," and “all drug users are criminal."

This madness is hurting our health-care systems, it’s hurting patients, and it’s hurting veterans.

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While I’ve been fortunate enough to leave active duty relatively unscathed, many of my fellow veterans have not been so lucky. Men and women I’ve serve with have suffered from PTSD, chronic pain, insomnia, arthritis among other mental and physical injuries.

 

While many of their civilian friends have found successful treatment plans with medical marijuana, because they are part of the VA healthcare center, my veteran friends are left to suffer through with ineffective treatment plans of prescription cocktails.

Patients with the VA are not only prohibited from using medical marijuana while on VA property in states where it’s otherwise legal, VA providers are prohibited from even suggesting its use for medical purposes. While veterans are encouraged to disclose any medical marijuana with their providers, the VA won’t facilitate participation in state-approved research into its potential benefits.

This is because the federal government still classifies marijuana as a schedule I drug. There are five schedules, or categories, as determined by the federal government. Schedule I drugs, to include marijuana, are defined as drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Part of a historic court decision against rescheduling cannabis argued that “marijuana’s medicinal value has never been proven in sound scientific studies.” While this decision was made in 1994, courts again cited insufficient scientific findings in 2011 when they denied a petition to initiate the process of rescheduling cannabis.

This claim of insufficient scientific findings is highly disputed among cannabis advocates. In one analysis of 60 peer-reviewed studies of medical marijuana use from 1990-2014, 68 percent of the studies showed showed a “benefit of using marijuana” to treat various diseases ranging from multiple sclerosis to cancer to chronic pain. While results are mixed, leading scientists can agree that much more research needs to be done to determine the benefits and risks of marijuana use.

While recent easing of restrictions has led to new studies seeking to answer just that, the DEA continues to ignore, or outright sabotage scientific progress. Likewise, the FDA has done little to expand or fund their own research program. In fact, there is only one federally funded and approved marijuana research center working through the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The University of Mississippi holds a monopoly on marijuana research.

So why is it so hard for researchers outside that monopoly to study marijuana? The DEA has to approve because it’s a Schedule I drug. If the DEA won’t approve more research and the government won’t fund it.

We must remove marijuana from the Schedule I group to allow non-government research centers to study marijuana without the bureaucracy of applying for a DEA permit.

We can remove cannabis from the schedule in two ways, through the legislative or executive branch. From the legislative side, lawmakers in Congress can propose and pass a bill removing marijuana from the schedule I tier.

The DEA can also recommend removal or transfer. The Attorney General can also initiate proceedings to the removal or transfer of a drug through the Department of Health and Human Services. More on how these processes are described by a report released by the Brookings Institute.

But barring any major ideological shifts, the current Attorney General is unlikely to pass reform. What’s much more realistic is that congress takes action, responding to the broad support among their constituents for research. Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSanders expected to announce exploratory committee next week Bill Maher to Dems: ‘Let’s not eat our own’ in 2020 Dems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters MORE has introduced one such bill to the Senate, S.1689 that will remove marijuana from schedule I classification.

In 1988, the non-profit organization NORML petitioned the DEA to remove Cannabis from Schedule I. The Chief Administrative Law Judge in that case, Judge Francis Young, concluded that “the provisions of the Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II.” Judge Young’s recommendation was rejected by the then-DEA administrator John Lawn, and cannabis remained a Schedule I drug.

For a country who supports our troops, we should take a look at what they need and value veterans’ health over our reluctance to let go of stigmas and turn to science. According to a recent poll conducted by the American Legion, veterans and their families overwhelmingly support the use of medical marijuana. According to separate poll, 93  percent of voters support the use of marijuana for medical reasons.

Veterans want progress. Veteran's caregivers want progress. Citizens want progress.

Furthermore, as Judge Young argued in his recommendation “strong emotions are aroused on both sides of any discussion concerning the use of marijuana. Nonetheless it is essential for this Agency, and its Administrator, calmly and dispassionately to review the evidence of record, correctly apply the law, and act accordingly.”

It’s time to end “reefer madness,” to fund research into medical marijuana, and to allow veterans to safely and legally access marijuana therapies.

Maggie Seymour is a 2018 Fellow with High Ground Veterans Advocacy and a member of the Truman National Security Project. She spent ten years as an active duty Marine Corps Officer.