Millions of American military veterans — more than one in five, according to an American Legion survey — use marijuana to treat a medical ailment.
But many of those veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health care to former servicemembers, isn’t responsive to their needs. Citing the federal prohibition on cannabis, the VA has long said its doctors cannot legally issue recommendations for marijuana even in states that have medical marijuana programs — an assertion disputed by some analysts. It has also largely refused to conduct studies on the potential efficacy of the drug as a treatment for PTSD and other disorders common among vets, instead focusing its research on the harms of using cannabis.
Now, new legislation could change that.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Marine Corps officer who saw combat in Iraq, announced Wednesday that he has partnered with Republican congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida to introduce a trio of bills that would nudge the VA to better integrate cannabis into the treatment it provides veterans.
Similar bills and amendments have been proposed in Congress in the past, but were dropped or remain
in committee. However, with Democrats assuming control of the US House in January, the measures proposed by Moulton and Gaetz may have a better shot at passing. (They’ll still need to win support from the Senate and White House to become law, of course.)
“Our veterans are seeking alternative options to opioids and we should be supporting their desires not to be addicted to painkillers,” Moulton said in a statement. “Let’s not kid ourselves, people are using marijuana — including our veterans. We have an obligation to regulate it and make it as safe as possible.”
One of the measures proposed by Moulton and Gaetz would enshrine in law a current administrative policy that protects the benefits of veterans who disclose they use cannabis and directs VA physicians to freely discuss marijuana with veterans seeking treatment. The proposal, if passed, would require VA doctors to incorporate cannabis into veterans’ treatment plans and VA facilities to prominently post the policy.
VA doctors still could not issue recommendations for the drug, but Moulton’s office said the policy would end confusion over whether marijuana consumption could lead to a loss of federal benefits and ensure that the VA does not revoke its current policy.
A second bill proposed by the pair of legislators would force the VA to conduct a national survey of all veterans and VA health care providers to learn, among other measures, how many veterans are using marijuana and for which conditions.
The final bill proposed by Moulton and Gaetz would direct the VA to partner with medical schools that offer medical marijuana courses to educate health care providers on the drug and its uses.
“We… have an obligation to make sure our veterans are getting the best health care in the world,” Moulton said. “We have a long road ahead of us until medicinal cannabis is fully researched and legal but we can take a few steps now to start figuring that out.”
The bills have been endorsed by several drug policy advocacy groups, and the National Cannabis Industry Association.
“These issues can be a matter of life or death for our nation’s veterans,” said Justin Strekal, the political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “The uncertainty of VA policy when it comes to a veteran’s ability to have an honest conversation with their doctor has a deleterious effect on the doctor-patient relationship and dishonors the promise that America made to those who put on the uniform to protect our nation’s freedoms.”
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @dan_adams86.