Congress to VA: New bill demands VA start marijuana research

Phil Briggs
April 17, 2018 - 11:15 am

In a response to the overwhelming demand from veterans and Veteran Service Organizations, for the VA to start conducting meaningful marijuana research, Congress has introduced a bill that leaves no room for excuses.

The new bill – called The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 – was announced today by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn, and Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn, and the intent of the new bill is clear: to authorize VA to advance scientific and medical research into the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis usage on veterans suffering from diagnoses such as PTSD and chronic pain.  

The bill specifically addresses hurdles indentified by the VA in a previous letter, with two main goals; (1) "Clarifying that research into medicinal cannabis is well within the authority of VA." and (2) "Requiring VA to report to Congress on how it intends to exercise that authority."  

“We have all heard the stories of veterans who have used cannabis medicinally to cope with physical and psychological injuries sustained during their service to our country,” said Rep. Walz. “In fact, 22 percent of veterans report using cannabis as a safer and more effective alternative to opioids and drug cocktails currently prescribed by VA for medical conditions such as PTSD or chronic pain; unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the dangerous and often deadly side effects associated with opioids. Simply put, there is no department or organization better suited to conduct this critically important research than VA, and there will never be a better time to act."

“As a physician, I am keenly aware of the need to look for opioid alternatives to treat patients’ chronic pain,” said Rep. Roe. “Since serving as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I’ve heard from many veterans, both with physical and invisible wounds, who believe medical cannabis could benefit them. This is why I support the department researching cannabis just like any other drug to see if this alternative therapy would truly benefit patients.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, plans to introduce companion legislation. “If veterans can ease some of the chronic pain or symptoms of injuries or illness they have received through service to our country without turning to opioids, the VA has a responsibility to research it.”

Former VA Secretary David Shulkin had previously stated that VA was in the early stages of medical marijuana research  at a facility in Charleston, South Carolina.

However VA officials declined our request for an interview about this study, releasing a statement saying, “Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research with Schedule I controlled substances including marijuana. Conduct of VA research using Schedule I controlled substances would involve interactions with a number of federal entities: Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services (HHS); National Institute of Health (NIH); National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) … VA is currently working through these restrictions in at least one location to initiate new marijuana-related research. Specifically, the location is the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina. The study would focus on the use of marijuana for Veterans in hospice care; the application is pending with NIH.”

Frustrated by the ongoing back and forth between VA and Congress, bill co-sponsor, Rep Lou Correa said, “I am honored to join Chairman Roe and Ranking Member Walz, and Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Jon Tester in finally taking action to help veterans in need of medical cannabis … with the opioid crisis raging across American, it is imperative to the health and safety of our veterans that we find alternative treatments for chronic pain and service-related injuries.”