Congress to consider medical marijuana for veterans

"Our nation's veterans have been calling for alternatives to opioids for decades. Cannabis has the potential to be that alternative"

US Capitol building on a sunny day Source: iStock

Congress is considering two bills that could mean access to medical marijuana for veterans.

The Veterans Equal Access Act and Veterans Medical Cannabis Research Act each aim to allow veterans the option of substituting cannabis for their other medications, or incorporating it into a holistic treatment approach.

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Both are still listed solely as being introduced to the government, with no information online about the vote.

The latter of those two laws, the VA Medical Cannabis Research Act, is on its way to the Senate after passing in the House Veterans Affairs Committee. California Representative Lou Correa worked on the bill for years before finally getting it through.

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Our nation’s veterans have been calling for alternatives to opioids for decades. Cannabis has the potential to be that alternative,” said. Rep. Correa

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Correa says the bill aims mostly at allowing medical research on cannabis and its potential benefits for veterans.

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My bill puts the needs of our veterans first and ensures the Department of Veterans Affairs takes cannabis seriously and conducts vital medical research. Many studies from around the world show cannabis’s effectiveness for treating PTSD and chronic pain. It’s time we did the research and got our vets the medications they need. We owe it to every veteran to never stop looking for ways to treat their scars.”

Veterans more likely to develop PTSD

The Department of Veterans Affairs says about 7-8 percent of people overall, (10% of women, and 4% of men) develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetimes. In veterans, those numbers are more than double in some cases.

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The VA says in 1980, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey estimated 15% of Vietnam veterans were diagnosed with PTSD; but that number has since been adjusted to 30%.

For people who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the VA estimates the percentage could be anywhere from 11-20%. For the Gulf War, the estimate is 12% of veterans.

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Those numbers aren’t from the scourge of war alone. 55% of women and 38% of men report experiencing sexual harassment while in the military, and 23% of women report sexual assault. 

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Efforts to allow veteran access to cannabis

Congressman Earl Blumenauer introduced the Veterans Equal Access Act in March of 2019, which plays into the same hand as the Medical Research Act. A 2018 version of the VA Equal Access Act was actively protested by the VA, and one estimate says the 2019 rendition has only a 4% chance of being enacted.

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The Act has been brought up in committee hearings about the VA, but so far, Congress’ website has no information about a scheduled vote. 

H.R. 1647 says simply, “…The Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall authorize physicians and other health care providers employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to— (1) provide recommendations and opinions to veterans who are residents of States with State marijuana programs regarding the participation of veterans in such State marijuana programs; and (2) complete forms reflecting such recommendations and opinions.”

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Legal, adult-use cannabis is the fastest-growing industry in the United States, and Congressman Blumenauer has said essentially that he wants people to get with the times. In 2018 alone, the US added nearly 65,000 full-time jobs in the marijuana industry. 

It is time for Congress and the Administration to face the facts surrounding marijuana, its use and regulation, and develop a legislative framework that accounts for the inevitable transition of marijuana policy – one that is already well underway. Federal marijuana policy should be modernized to reduce confusion, uncertainty, and conflicting government priorities,” said Blumenauer.

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Both of these bills hope to wean veterans away from the use of prescription opioids. The National Institutes of Health say the overall rate of opioid overdose in veterans has gone up drastically in recent years.

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The opioid epidemic continues to ravage veterans

Among Americans nationwide, opioids account for 67,300 deaths in 2018; up by more than 30,000 since 2010, but down from 70,237 in 2017.

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Opioid overdose rates among Veterans Health Administration Veterans increased because of increases in heroin and synthetic opioid overdose rates,” explains the NIH. “Prescriptions of opioids declined among patients who died from all categories of opioid overdose; by 2016, only a minority received an opioid analgesic from Veterans Health Administration within 3 months of overdose. Future prevention efforts should extend beyond patients actively receiving opioid prescriptions.”

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws says about 20% of veterans self-report as using marijuana to help with either a mental or physical condition. And the VA says about 13% of the veterans taking opioids have an opioid use disorder.

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The pills are highly addictive, and in 2013, at the height of the problem’s imitation, doctors wrote 250 million opioid prescriptions. At the time, there were only 317 million Americans nationwide.

Veterans barred from using cannabis products

The Department of Defense, meanwhile, bans troops from ingesting cannabis products entirely, barring the exception of a single medication, Epidiolex, which a doctor may prescribe for treatment of epileptic seizures.

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The limitation on cannabis consumption among the military extends to every branch, and includes both THC and CBD. Service members may not test positive for having consumed THC, and the military worries that a product labeled as CBD could trigger a positive THC-testing result.

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The Navy, for instance, explained the prohibition of all hemp products by saying, “Substance abuse by members of the Armed Forces is incompatible with military standards of good order and discipline, performance, and operational readiness,”

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There are certain standards within the military that do allow for topical CBD use. 

The nonprofit Disabled American Veterans, created by the US Congress, has called for more research and access to what it called “The cannabis cure.” 

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DAV explains the struggle this way:

While the VA cannot deny veterans benefits due to medical marijuana use, VA providers cannot recommend or prescribe cannabis since the Food and Drug Administration still classifies it as a Schedule I drug…The federal government, however, maintains that more research into the efficacy of medical marijuana needs to be conducted before it’s declassified and made available to service-connected disabled veterans through the VA.”

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The passage of either or both of these new bills could significantly help with that fight. 

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