Congress should lift the ban on medical cannabis access for military veterans

Congress should lift the ban on medical cannabis access for military veterans
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Americans in 33 states and the District of Columbia have legal access to medical marijuana under a doctor’s authorization. But this same access is often lacking for many military veterans.

That is because the current policy of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs explicitly prohibits V.A. physicians “from completing forms or registering veterans for participation in state-approved [medical marijuana] program[s].”

Some members of Congress have sought for years to change this policy. In 2016, majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate approved an amendment in the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bill that would have ended this discriminatory policy. 

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Nonetheless, Republican leadership decided to remove the language during a concurrence vote. In 2018, similar language was approved by the U.S. Senate, but was later removed during conference committee negotiations. 

This legislative session, Senate Bill 445 (sponsored by Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzThere's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Advocates hopeful dueling privacy bills can bridge partisan divide Key Senate Democrats unveil sweeping online privacy bill MORE) and House Bill 1151 (sponsored by Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeBooker unveils legislation for federal bill to ban discrimination against natural hair Adam Schiff's star rises with impeachment hearings Lawmakers visit African migrants at US-Mexico border MORE): The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act are pending in Congress.

Passage of these measures would, for the first time, allow doctors affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs “to recommend, complete forms for, or register veterans for participation in a treatment program involving medical marijuana that is approved by the law.” Similar legislation, HR 1647: The Veterans Equal Access Act (sponsored by Rep. Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerHillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Progressives oppose spending stopgap measure over surveillance authority extension House to hold markup Wednesday on marijuana decriminalization bill MORE), is also pending in the House of Representatives. 

House and Senate legislation to facilitate federally-sponsored clinical research “of the effects of medical-grade cannabis on the health outcomes of veterans diagnosed with chronic pain [or] post-traumatic stress disorder” is also pending. 

Continued congressional intransigence on this issue is unacceptable. Emerging evidence indicates that cannabis can potentially mitigate many of the symptoms plaguing our nation’s veterans. 

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For example, a 2014 study reported a 75 percent reduction in PTSD symptomology scores following subjects’ enrollment in a state-sponsored medical cannabis access program. Separate data from Minnesota similarly reports that many patients enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis registry show a "clinically meaningful" reduction in post-traumatic stress symptoms. 

Most recently, data published this month in the "Journal of Psychopharmacology" reported that those with a clinical diagnosis of PTSD who consume cannabis possess significantly lower rates of severe depression and suicidal ideation than those who do not. 

Separate studies — such as those reported here, here, and here — report that chronic pain patients reduce their use of opioids following access to medical cannabis therapy. Other studies have shown that cannabinoids can mitigate the frequency and intensity of trauma-related nightmares in military personnel. 

For these reasons and others, veterans’ advocacy groups are increasingly going on record in support of federal policy changes. According to nationwide survey data compiled by the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 75 percent of military veterans “would be interested in using cannabis or cannabinoid products as a treatment option if it were available." 

The American Legion, the nation's largest wartime veterans service organization, has adopted a resolution urging the "United States government to permit V.A. medical providers to be able to discuss with veterans the use of marijuana for medical purposes and recommend it in those states where medical marijuana laws exist."

It is time for Congress to grant physicians affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs the same discretion as other doctors in medical cannabis states. Politicians should no longer put politics ahead of the health and well-being of America’s military veterans, some of whom may potentially benefit from medical marijuana.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). He is the co-author of the book, "Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?" and the author of the book, "The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws."