A Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) letter made public Tuesday made clear that the department would not take a proactive stance on the value of medical marijuana in the United States. This is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending story between state-legal programs and federal law.
Though the VA has never been a bastion of hope on the medical marijuana front, many believed the department would come around and see the light following expanded state-level legalization around the United States. This is not the case.
A letter from VA Secretary David Shulkin to U.S. House Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) from late December was made public Tuesday, detailing the frustrating ways in which the VA would skirt the responsibility of finding a non-addictive alternative to opioids.
“VA is committed to research and developing effective ways to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions,” Shulkin penned to Walz. “However, federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects.”
Though the VA does allow its doctors some leeway with respect to discussing medical marijuana with their veteran patients, the healthcare giant cemented that it will not conduct any research on cannabis as a possible therapeutic relief to countless soldiers who want an alternative to opioid painkillers, preferring to cling to the tired argument that they must abide by federal law and the archaic Controlled Substances Act. This also is not the case.
A 2003 ruling gave the VA MMJ leeway
A ruling at the federal level all the way back in 2003 declared that doctors in states with legal access to marijuana could not only discuss marijuana with their patients without fear of prosecution or other recourse but could also provide oral or written recommendations — a complete contradiction of what Secretary Shulkin has expressed in the past.
Then, after receiving enormous amounts of backlash from lawmakers and veterans alike, Secretary Shulkin “clarified” his stance at a Veterans’ Affairs committee hearing Wednesday, just a day after admonishing cannabis research.
“The VA has done research on marijuana but it has not been dispensing marijuana and testing its impact,” explained Shulkin to the committee. “It has been observational data analysis. The VA can do research on marijuana, but I said that we are restricted because it is a Class 1 substance, so we have to go through multiple agencies and it is very challenging to work our way through that process. We do have the ability to do it and I have said I am in favor of exploring anything that will help our veterans and relieve some of their sufferings.”
Shulkin again blamed Congress for the lack of VA medical marijuana research, adding, “If Congress made it easier to go through the process, it would probably happen faster.”
Advocates fill in the gaps for vets
Marijuana.com caught up with Seth Smith, the director of communications and government affairs for SC Veterans Alliance (SCVA), an organization that cultivates high-quality cannabis to supply their bustling retail shop in Santa Cruz and philanthropic efforts to support veterans in ways the VA simply will not.
We asked Smith about the VA’s refusal to conduct meaningful research on marijuana, to which he replied, “They could do whatever they want with cannabis as a healthcare institution unto themselves that does rely on federal funding, and they absolutely have more flexibility than the secretary would have you think.”
SCVA picks up the slack of the VA, holding monthly meetings as part of their Veteran Compassion Program, which veterans can attend to learn about medical marijuana and receive access to free medicine.
“Upwards of 80 percent of veterans are diagnosed with chronic pain and they’re being prescribed opioid painkillers by the VA,” said Smith, who served in the US Navy for six years as a cryptologic interpreter and airborne mission supervisor. “This is a huge issue in the veteran community.”
According to Smith, many veterans are reluctant to participate in the state’s newly modified medical marijuana program for fear of losing their VA benefits when they show up in some database of medical marijuana patients. SCVA serves between 750 and 800 veterans, making up nearly a third of their patient base.
The VA’s new medical marijuana directive states, “Veterans must not be denied VHA services solely because they are participating in State-approved marijuana programs,” but vets have their doubts.
“Federal officials have said this won’t be the case in states where cannabis is legal but I’m not sure veterans believe that. These veterans will continue having to operate in the shadows. A lot of VA doctors, especially younger doctors, would be more than happy to discuss medical marijuana as an option with their Veteran patients, but their hands are tied because of the VA administration’s policies,” Smith said. “The VA is refusing to engage in any research on the potential benefits of cannabis and it is a tragedy. We have 22 veterans a day committing suicide and the overwhelming majority of them are middle-aged, 55-years-old and up. We know that the fastest growing group of cannabis users are the baby boomers, those same folks.”
What will it take to create a change in the VA?
“I think we need all of the other veteran organizations as on board with medical marijuana as the American Legion has been, Smith explained.
In September, the American Legion, the largest veterans organization in the nation, chastised the VA for its refusal to support the first FDA-approved study of marijuana’s medical efficacy in the treatment of PTSD.
“Most of the congressmen and women who control how this issue will move in the near future are from states where cannabis is not readily available. As more and more states legalize medical marijuana, we will hit a critical mass where it can no longer be avoided. This year, we could see another half-dozen states legalize medical cannabis, and that would be huge as it would get us nearly to a de facto constitutional amendment with over two-thirds of the states having reformed their cannabis laws. We need that momentum to continue for at least a few more years.”
Even with Secretary Shulkin’s apparent 180-degree flip on medical marijuana research in less than a day, it remains to be seen if one of the largest healthcare institutions in a country where the majority of citizens have legal access to medical marijuana will do its part to end the opioid epidemic.