Senators want to give VA doctors green light to recommend marijuana

Matt Saintsing
September 05, 2018 - 4:52 pm

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Two Democratic Senators introduced new legislation Wednesday that would allow VA doctors to prescribe cannabis to veterans in states that have medical marijuana programs.

The Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, introduced by Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), would expand medical cannabis access to veterans who live with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress (PTS), and other service-connected medical ailments. 

 “Federal law prohibits VA doctors from prescribing or recommending medical marijuana to veterans,” Nelson said in a statement. “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.”

The bill would urge the VA to conduct research on how marijuana can be used for pain and opioid abuse, an unfortunately common cause of death for veterans. 

A wide range of organizations supports this bill including the American Academy of Pain Medicine, Veterans Cannabis Project, American for Safe Access, Veterans Cannabis Coalition, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and others. 

Supporters of the bill say it would bring veterans who use cannabis back on the right side of the law. 

“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,” adds Justin Strekal, Political Director of NORML.

Veterans and the military have been on the front lines of American social change, he says, shifting public insights on issues of 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,” says Strekal. 

"We believe this bill recognizes and works to end the absurd and destructive catch-22 that veterans who medicate with cannabis find themselves in—where the federal government criminalizes them for possession, hinders them in talking to their primary care VA doctors about cannabis, and blocks nearly all research into cannabis’ medical efficacy," adds Eric Goepel, an Army veteran who is the founder and CEO of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for expansion of marijuana to veterans. 

A similar bill, H.R. 1820—The Veterans Equal Access Act—is pending in the House. 

The proposed legislation comes about a week after a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers pressed VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to research marijuana for veterans. 

Photo by Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune

“We believe the VA has the authority, ability, and capacity to carry out such a study,” reads the letter, which is signed by Reps. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.), and Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.)  “Many of our nation’s veterans already use medicinal cannabis, and they deserve to have full knowledge of the potential benefits and side effects of this alternative therapy.” 

And the letter is signed by members of Congress who could get the job done.

Roe is the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and a medical doctor, while Walz is the committee’s ranking member. Sullivan is a Marine Corps veteran who sits on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, of which Tester is the highest ranking Democrat. 

“If (Wilkie) is willing to at least consider conducting research or maybe drawing up some proposals, anything would be a step in the right direction,” says Goepel. “In this political climate there aren’t a lot of easy wins, so a lot of this is process work,” he said of the joint letter. 

But Wilkie’s thoughts on marijuana remain unknown as he has yet to publicly voice his opinion on cannabis as a treatment for veterans since taking charge of the VA last month. 

Roe and Walz introduced H.R. 5520 last April, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which has the distinction of being the only piece of marijuana reform legislation to ever make it out of committee but has yet to be scheduled for a vote. 

“Under Republican Congressional leadership, they have refused to advance H.R. 5520,” says Strekal. “This legislation was authored by Chairman Roe, it was heard in committee, it was passed favorably out of committee and only Congressional process, which is run by Republican leadership in the House, is preventing it from moving to the floor.” 

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