The American public’s perception of veterans is well reflected in the bipartisanship Congress has shown in enhancing veterans benefits over the past decade, as a generation of war fighters returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and reintegrated into society.
The current buffet of federal benefits veterans have earned under federal law is broader than ever, yet many continue to suffer from conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), at times and too often dying tragically from suicide because available medical treatments are ineffective. We must do all we can to make sure our veterans aren’t barred from the health care treatments that work for them.
The use of medical marijuana has entered the national discussion as a viable treatment option and a growing number of voices are calling for it to become available to veterans for medical use. Some national veterans organizations, such as the American Legion, want the government to allocate money to study its medical efficacy and potential as a life altering benefit to ease the effects of PTSD, chronic pain and other disorders.
The American Legion represents the largest number of veterans nationwide and its recent membership survey is illuminating. Ninety-two percent of members surveyed support funding for medical marijuana research, and 82% already say it should be available as a legal treatment for veterans.
The static track of prescribing pharmaceutical drugs to treat veterans’ physical and mental health challenges fails repeatedly. The time has arrived for the federal government to offer alternate treatments, including the use of medical marijuana.
Nationally, 29 states and the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have legalized the use of some form of medical marijuana. Former Veteran Affairs secretary David Shulkin said last year that medical marijuana offers potential benefits to veterans, but earlier this year he said federal law restricts study of the issue.
That is incorrect as federal research on marijuana is possible and does occur. It can be an onerous approval process, but universities and federal agencies have researched it and the VA needs to move swiftly in that same direction. Our veterans in too many cases cannot wait for the care they have earned and deserve.
The mental health treatment paradigm at the VA is too narrow. The reasons include the archaic federal classification of marijuana as a dangerous Schedule 1 drug and the rigid, glacial VA bureaucracy, which has stymied the availability of complementary and alternative treatments (in VA jargon: treatments that are not pills in a bottle). The problem is exacerbated when leaders like Attorney General Jeff Sessions state that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” a view that is incredibly myopic.
In reality, many valiant men and women who have served our nation with honor smoke marijuana to treat the obvious and invisible wounds of war. Wounded veterans we know personally, who have lost limbs from catastrophic bomb blasts, have anecdotally reported that smoking marijuana significantly reduces their pain symptoms. This includes “phantom” pains and the anxiety often associated with PTSD and limb loss.
During the 2016 campaign, President Trump advocated allowing access to medical marijuana for those who would benefit from that treatment.
The time has come for the incoming VA leadership, once confirmed, to take the lead on this issue and work aggressively to break the current gridlock on researching medical marijuana for veterans. Concurrently, Sessions should weigh the merits of ending marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug. He should also spend some time with war veterans who say this plant is healing their wounds, and redirect federal policy to line up with their views and the president’s position.
More broadly, it is past time to re-evaluate the war on drugs, incarceration rates for non-criminal offenses, and the racial imbalance in marijuana sentencing. But this issue before us is not political and it is more narrowly focused. This is about treating and caring for our war veterans, many of whom have been seriously injured protecting our country and defending the Constitution.
Marijuana is having noticeable positive effects on the recovery of these men and women, and it is unacceptable that federal law prohibits treatment because of outdated federal drug policy. We urge our veterans to continue to be vocal on this issue and are encouraged by how much reform Trump is bringing to the VA.
Now is the time for new VA leaders and the attorney general to work together to get this issue right. Marijuana should be removed from the Schedule 1 drug list and the VA should actively study the medicinal value of marijuana for our veterans.