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Veteran Health Care Must Include Medical Cannabis (Bipartisan Resolutions are a Good Start) 

The inability of the government to meet veterans’ urgent mental health care needs has resulted in crisis-level statistics. On average, 17 veterans commit suicide every day, a rate nearly double that of the non-veteran population. Veterans are overrepresented in our nation’s homeless population. The Department of Veterans Affairs routinely denies the disability claims of military sexual trauma survivors, despite the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the ranks. As many as half a million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress. Many more struggle with loneliness, depression, and isolation after leaving the service.

Efforts to improve and expand veterans’ access to mental health care have been insufficient. At some VA facilities, wait times for appointments exceed 30 days. The previous administration’s solution to this problem, outsourcing more veterans’ healthcare through the MISSION Act, has been plagued by administrative mismanagement. Additionally, while the number of veterans prescribed opiates by VA healthcare providers has decreased over the past decade, years of over-reliance on prescription painkillers have resulted in devastating patient outcomes.

It is time to provide veterans with access to medical cannabis. 

Recently reintroduced bipartisan legislation, the Veterans Equal Access Act, would allow VA healthcare providers to recommend medical cannabis and complete required paperwork for veterans located in states with existing medical cannabis programs. By allowing many of the nation’s VA healthcare providers to immediately rely upon existing standards already set by state experts, rather than wait years or even decades for the VA to conduct its own clinical studies and overcome the inevitable bureaucratic barriers imposed by its own institutional rigidity, veterans could gain access to medical cannabis through the VA in a much shorter time frame. Absent such a swift command from Congress, the VA’s historic inability to take timely action while veterans endure years of needless suffering is unfortunately well-documented. It is time for the VA to acknowledge the validity of veterans’ testimony regarding the positive impacts of medical cannabis on their mental health.

A different bipartisan bill, the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, takes a different approach by directing the VA to conduct clinical research into the efficacy of medical cannabis on PTSD and chronic pain. Despite overwhelming support from veterans and the endorsement of major veterans service organizations, the VA opposes the legislation as unempirical and redundant. VA officials assert a lack of scientific merit underpinning the clinical trials it prescribes and the fact that VA research into the efficacy of cannabidiol on PTSD is already underway.

The VA’s unwillingness to research medical cannabis stems from a systematic review of select previous studies conducted over five years ago that failed to establish sufficient evidence of the benefits of medical cannabis in treating PTSD. However, studies published before and after that review contradict the VA’s conclusion. The classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act has largely deterred exactly the kind of research and clinical trials VA officials say are  needed to establish sufficient evidence. The VA conceded years ago that it has the ability to conduct research into medical cannabis while remaining compliant with the CSA, but absent a mandate from lawmakers, efforts have been exasperatingly slow. The VA study into the efficacy of CBD on PTSD, which I mentioned above, began more than three years ago and won’t be completed until 2024. 

Given this glacial timeline, it is clear that legislation merely requiring the VA to conduct research would take years before veterans could safely access legal medical cannabis. While more research is crucial, it is clear that veterans need access to cannabis now. Allowing VA healthcare providers to recommend medical cannabis in accordance with state guidelines is the kind of dynamic and innovative approach the VA needs. At the same time, veterans’ lives and livelihoods hang in the balance. At the very least, it is what veterans deserve after decades of failure from both lawmakers and the VA to adequately address their mental health  needs.