Early in November, Representative Lou Correa (D-CA) introduced a bill to the House Veterans Affairs Committee to instruct the VA to begin studying the therapeutic effects of cannabis for veterans. It has gone exactly nowhere. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced an amendment to a defense spending bill that would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states that have medical marijuana sales. This has also gone nowhere.

 

Everyone but the Government

Type in “medical marijuana” in Google, and the first link that pops is WebMD. That’s the site that told you that that bruise on your arm was probably cancer, remember? A wealth of information, but maybe a bit like drinking from a fire hose.

The next link is a blog post from Harvard University’s health department. It was written by a doctor who acts as a medical cannabis specialist for Massachusetts General Hospital, and teaches at Harvard Medical School. He has studied cannabis for over 20 years, and works with physicians who have or have had substance abuse problems. He talks about anecdotal evidence from patients who have used it for pain relief, nausea, PTSD, and as a muscle relaxant. He goes on to tell how to discuss marijuana use with your doctor.

Move on down the list, and the next link is to the U.S. government’s drug abuse site. That link touts a number of THC and CBD-derived medications (three of them are FDA-approved, and one is available in Europe), but cautions that the effects of using the plant are not fully understood. Although the plant has been smoked, distilled and swallowed, vaporized, and even made into topical applications for decades we still have no real data on it.

The fourth result on the list is from the Mayo Clinic. It talks about the efficacy of the drug (as reported by users), potential side effects, and what to expect if you are planning to buy and ingest marijuana. It lists in what forms you can expect to find marijuana-based medicines. All very clinical and dry.

 

Veterans Affairs or Veteran Suspects?

VA Policy On Veterans And Medical Marijuana. (Graphic by Staff Sgt. Jeff Parkinson/USAF)

Search out medical marijuana and veterans affairs, and the VA’s public health site is the first to pop. According to it, the VA cannot and will not prescribe medical marijuana. They cannot and will not recommend medical marijuana, or fill out medical marijuana forms in states that have legalized it, nor will they pay for a prescription from a licensed doc. It also mentions that employees are subject to random drug testing.

The same article, though, encourages veterans to be open and honest with their providers regarding their marijuana use. It also states that “VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans…and adjust treatment plans as necessary.” Adjust treatment plans as necessary? Does that mean they can prescribe drugs that co-exist peacefully with marijuana? If the FDA does not understand the effects of marijuana, and all prescription drugs available through the VA are FDA approved, how can VA doctors effectively manage a care plan?

 

They’re Trying

The VA is currently studying synthetic forms of CBD, a non-high-producing compound found in marijuana. CBD products are sold over-the-counter in nearly every gas station in the U.S., and numerous CBD-based shops have opened in nearly every city in the country. There is also a VA study in the works for 2022 that would look at the efficacy of synthetic THC, the psychotropic compound that produces the “high,” on neuropathic pain. Both these studies are dependent on synthetic forms of the widely-available marijuana plant.

Thirty-seven of the 50 states have legalized medical marijuana in some form. These states have laws controlling the growth, sale, and use of marijuana and marijuana-derived products. The federal government, however, does not stand united with those states. Despite the most strenuous lukewarm efforts by our nations’ lawmakers to, maybe, not come down so hard on marijuana users, there exist no real plans to allow for the federal legalization of marijuana.

 

Schrodinger’s Veteran

Where does that leave veterans who live in states that have legalized marijuana? In limbo, that’s where. While the VA states that medical marijuana use is not a bar to treatment, disclosing marijuana use to the VA doctors is a crap-shoot. No, the VA will not deny medical treatment based on marijuana use, but it can definitely alter treatment. And that is pretty much based on the doctor’s own views about marijuana. Marine veteran-turned-lawyer Derek Debus told the Missouri Independent he has clients “that have gone to the VA for acute injuries like kidney stones, or even a broken arm, who were denied pain medication because they tested positive for cannabis and or have a state medical marijuana card.”

In 2019, VA Secretary David Shulkin told lawmakers the VA was restricted from engaging in marijuana research. In a flash, numerous veterans advocate groups pounced on him, saying in no uncertain terms that he was lying. Later, testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs committee, Shulkin admitted the VA was not “restricted” from performing research, but that the process was difficult and time-consuming.

Holy smoke! Cannabis business booms

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The Real Victims of the War on Drugs

On average, 22 veterans take their lives each day. Millions suffer from ailments brought on by military service. Tons of opioid medications are prescribed and ingested every day. This is despite the well-known opioid epidemic in the U.S., which kills tens of thousands each year. Seventy-three percent of overdose deaths involving opioids were from synthetic opioids, except methadone. Methadone, to those not in the know, is the synthetic opioid prescribed to patients who are addicted to other synthetic opioids. Where does it end?

Marijuana MayDay Parade
The 2017 Minneapolis MayDay Parade, organized by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, marches along Bloomington Avenue in South Minneapolis. (Photo by Tony Webster)

Jeff Sessions, the U.S. attorney general under President Trump, stated baldly that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana” while rolling back Obama-era efforts to destigmatize the plant. Federal marijuana legalization is one of those topics that none in power seem to have the stomach to have a stand on, except those vehemently opposed to it.

 

The Growing Tide

Maybe the majority will rule. Isn’t that the basis for free government? For the people, by the people? As 37 out of the 50 states have legalized marijuana in some form, it seems like the majority of the people have spoken, and they spoke out in favor of legalization. Maybe it’s time for the federal government to accept the will of the people, and that includes the veterans.