Healthcare

New Senate legislation would protect and serve veterans who consume marijuana

Last week, Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) made history with the introduction of legislation, known as The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, to expand and facilitate medical cannabis access to military veterans suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, and other serious medical conditions.

Under existing regulations, VA doctors are not permitted to fill out the mandatory paperwork necessary to recommend cannabis therapy in the majority of states that now regulate its lawful use, essentially nullifying the contract that the American government entered with service members to cover their healthcare options.

It is unconscionable that these brave individuals who protect our nation's freedoms would be treated as criminals when they return home just for treating their medical ailments with a safe and effective option.

Passage of The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act would end this discrimination.

"This legislation will allow veterans in Florida and elsewhere the same access to legitimately prescribed medication, just as any other patient in those 31 states would have," said Senator Bill Nelson.  

These types crucial medical and civil protections for the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve this country are absolutely necessary given the alarming rates of opioid addiction and suicide by veterans. According to data released this year by the Department of Veterans Affairs, twenty former service men and women take their lives each day, while a 2011 report revealed that veterans are twice as likely to die from an opioid overdose compared to the civilian population.  

"In the 31 states where medical marijuana is legal, patients and doctors are able to see if marijuana helps with pain management. Our veterans deserve to have that same chance," Sen. Schatz said upon induction. "This bill does right by our veterans, and it can also shed light on how medical marijuana can help with the nation's opioid epidemic."

Yet veterans are increasingly turning towards therapeutic cannabis, all while being turned away from their VA doctor.

According to a November 2017 poll by the American Legion, nearly one-in-four veterans reported to consume marijuana "to alleviate a medical or physical condition."

And the data corroborates these veterans' decisions. A 2017 review of over 10,000 studies by the National Academy of Sciences concluded, "There is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids are effective for the treatment for chronic pain in adults."

Further, a study by the Journal of American Medicine found that over 10 years, "States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws."

Last Congress, majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate voted to include similar language as part of the Fiscal Year 2017 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. However, Republicans sitting on the House Appropriations Committee elected to remove the language from the bill during a concurrence vote.

Historically, veteran and military communities have long been at the forefront of American social change, catalyzing the widespread acceptance of evolving cultural norms and perceptions surrounding racial, gender, and sexual equality. The therapeutic use of cannabis by veterans follows this trend and members of Congress should follow their lead and pass the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act.

Justin Strekal is the political director for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to reform our nation's marijuana laws. Prior to working on drug policy, he focused on tax, wage, and campaign finance reform as well as managed electoral campaigns throughout the country for positions in every level of government.

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