Marijuana research for vets stalls amid political blame game

Matt Saintsing
July 03, 2018 - 3:01 pm

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For years now, lawmakers, veterans, and marijuana advocates have been clamoring for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to research the medical benefits of marijuana for vets with post-traumatic stress, chronic pain and other wounds of war. Veterans are twice as likely to accidentally overdose from opioids than non-vets, and many use marijuana as a safer alternative. 

However, there has not been a controlled study to evaluate the efficacy of pot on the veteran population, despite mountains of anecdotal evidence that suggests to scientists that marijuana could be a promising area of medical research.

Additionally, the veterans who stand to benefit from such research are completely left out of that decision-making process with many puzzled as to why the VA is taking so long to get a study off the ground. Now we know.  

Recently released internal emails show that high-ranking White House officials pressed the VA last year to conduct such research, but the VA worried about potential pushback from the Justice Department. 

In an email dated June 15, 2017, under the subject line, “Big Bold Ideas,” Marine Corps veteran and White House advisor for Veterans issues, Jake Leinenkugel, wrote, “thousands of Veterans claim their legal/illegal use of cannabis has made dramatic changes in their well-being.”

“Many claiming it saved their lives and got them off all opioids and most of their prescribed drugs issued by VA.”

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He added that it is the “Right Thing to Do,” and supported by both the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.

These emails are part of a collection of recently released messages after Jasper Craven, a journalist, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in April.  

Former acting Chief Information Officer Scott Blackburn wrote, “Good ideas here,” when he was serving as interim deputy VA secretary. “See comments in red below,” he said.

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In his comments, Blackburn warns that “resistance” could come from the Department of Justice or other areas of the Trump administration. “I agree with you that this is the right thing to do,” he wrote. Blackburn resigned from the VA in April.

In other words, the reason the VA is dragging their feet to study cannabis is not out of consideration for suffering veterans, but because of vaguely defined political "resistance." 

It's unclear if these conversations made it up the chain to higher levels, either within the administration, or the VA, but these messages show that some White House officials have advocated for a pot study while the VA voiced concerns over pushback in other parts of the administration. 

That pushback most likely is a reference to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has repeatedly voiced his opposition to legalizing marijuana. He previously threw out the Obama-era guidance that the DOJ would not get in the way of states exploring legalization. 

Last year, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that President Trump supports marijuana legalization for those suffering from a medical condition. Spicer though went on to say the administration sees a link between pot use and opioid abuse, despite the fact that multiple studies show the exact opposite

"I’ve said before, that the President understands the pain and suffering that many people go through, who are facing especially terminal diseases, and the comfort that some of these drugs, including medical marijuana, can bring to them," said Spicer. 

"There’s a big difference between that and recreational marijuana. And I think that when you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people," he added. 

According to the VA, “veterans are encouraged to discuss marijuana use” with VA physicians, however, VA doctors are unable to recommend medical marijuana to patients. Veterans though, can’t be denied VA benefits if they use cannabis. 

When asked for comment on the emails, VA press secretary Curt Cashour said, it is "false" that VA folded to political pressure, adding that the department is "committed to improving treatment options for Veterans," and expanding research in other areas. But he said that VA's hands are tied on conducting marijuana research due to "restrictions imposed by federal law." 

Blaming federal law is nothing new, lawmakers, veterans, and marijuana advocates have repeatedly heard the same excuse. For example, one federally approved study on marijuana's impact on post-traumatic stress (PTS) has been barred from reaching veterans at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz. In an interview, last June, then-VA secretary David Shulkin said researching marijuana is "not within our legal scope to study that in formal research programs." 

Brookings Institution researcher John Hudak wrote a scathing rebuke of the VA's excuse for not researching cannabis, claiming "doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals could conduct research into the medical efficacy of marijuana while remaining completely compliant with federal laws and regulations, and the United States' obligations under international agreements."

"VA is currently working through these restrictions in at least one location to initiate new marijuana-related research," said Cashour.

That location is the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, where the study would focus on marijuana use for vets in hospice care, but not those with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress or other service-connected ailments. That application is currently pending with the National Institute of Health. 

Additionally, Cashour said the VA has 90 active research studies that survey veterans on their self-reported marijuana use and how that impacts the medicine they are taking, but stressed that Congress must act before the agency can more fully research cannabis.  

"If Congress wants to facilitate more federal research into Schedule I controlled substances such as marijuana, it can always choose to eliminate these restrictions," he added. 

In May, a bill that would clarify the VA's ability to study cannabis became the first marijuana reform legislation to be approved by a congressional committee but has yet to be scheduled for a vote. 

Cannabis remains on the list of Schedule I substances, which are reserved for drugs that have no medical use and have the most restrictive regulations before research is possible.  

Last November, the American Legion released the data from a national survey that found vets overwhelmingly support marijuana research and legalization. 

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