To honor veterans, Congress must reform federal marijuana laws

To honor veterans, Congress must reform federal marijuana laws
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This Veterans Day, you will likely read and hear many political leaders paying lip service to honor our nation's veterans.

But as they list out their policy prescriptions, one that directly impacts nearly one-in-four veterans will be suspiciously absent: marijuana. 

According to survey data compiled by the American Legion, we now know that 22 percent of veterans self-report consuming marijuana to alleviate symptoms stemming from a physical or mental ailment.

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Post-traumatic stress, chronic pain and other medical issues can be a matter of life or death. Moreover, failure of VA policy to allow physicians to openly talk about cannabis or recommend it has a deleterious effect on the doctor-patient relationship and on the well-being of our veterans.

There are two pieces of legislation currently pending in Congress that would end this needless discrimination: the Veterans Equal Access Act in the House and The Veterans Medical Marijuana and Safe Harbor Act in the Senate.

These reforms 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, 20 former servicemen 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.

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Twice in the 115th Congress, a majority of lawmakers voted to facilitate veterans’ access to medical cannabis by including key provisions in the fiscal 2017 and fiscal 2018 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bills. However, Republicans on the Appropriations Conference Committee twice elected to remove the language from the bill during concurrence votes.

Congressional intransigence on this issue by the Republican party defies common sense. Veterans acknowledge using marijuana at rates far higher than the general population and nearly half of them describe their use as self-medicating, according data published earlier this year in the journal "Addictive Behaviors." Further, according to nationwide survey data compiled by The American Legion, 39 percent of respondents affirm that they "know a veteran" who is using the plant medicinally.

 ccording to a 2017 review of over 10,000 studies by the National Academy of Sciences, “In adults with chronic pain, patients who were treated with cannabis … are more likely to experience a clinically significant reduction in pain symptoms. … There is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids are effective for the treatment for chronic pain in adults.”

Other studies have shown that cannabis and its components can mitigate symptoms of PTSD and night terrors. Medical cannabis access is also consistently shown to be associated with reduced levels of opioid abuse and opioid-related mortality — two phenomena that have hit the veterans’ community especially hard.

Scientific evidence in support of legal medical marijuana aside, it is politically beneficial for elected officials to act on reform. Public support roundly approves medical cannabis access.

According to nationwide polling data compiled earlier this year by Quinnipiac University, 91 percent of Americans — including eight out of ten of self-identified Republican voters — “support” allowing adults to use cannabis when it is recommended by their physician.

This Veterans Day, federal lawmakers would be wise to end the criminalization of healthcare by veterans. Addressing the senseless federal prohibition of marijuana and allowing it’s therapeutic use to be legally accessed by the tens-thousands of veterans who are already consuming it for such purposes makes sense from a moral, compassionate, political and fiscal perspective.

The fact is that these men and women put on the uniform to defend this nation’s freedoms and it is the height of hypocrisy that they return as civilians only to be criminals in the eyes of the state as they seek health care.

Justin Strekal is the political director for NORML, where he serves as an advocate to end the federal prohibition of marijuana and to reform our nation's laws. In his role as NORML’s federal lobbyist, he focuses on moving lawmakers towards evidence-based solutions that comport with analogous substances as the United States prepares for a substantial public policy shift in regards to cannabis.