It’s no secret that veterans, like anyone else, can experience chronic pain. But did you know that almost 60% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are affiliated with such suffering? Unfortunately the standard course of treatment for pain management, as most service members know, is a bottle of pills—often addictive opioid-based painkillers. In other words, narcotics.
Studies have shown that opioids are responsible for ~63% of all drug-related deaths in America, and that veterans are twice as likely to die from an overdose. As alarming as these stats are, what’s more troublesome to some people is that less harmful potential alternatives exist.
One such person who advocates for these alternative solutions to chronic pain management for veterans is Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
In February 2019, Sen. Schatz introduced the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act with the stated purpose “To allow veterans to use, possess, or transport medical marijuana and to discuss the use of medical marijuana with a physician of the Department of Veterans Affairs as authorized by a State or Indian Tribe, and for other purposes.”
According to the proposed act, states which currently allow for the use of medical cannabis have shown nearly a 25% lower opioid overdose rate than states which ban medical cannabis use. But the act isn’t just trying to lower mortality rates. It advocates for cannabis as showing “promise for treating a wide-range of diseases and disorders” apart from chronic pain, too.
To this end, Sen. Schatz is looking to fund two major studies—one on the effects of medical marijuana on “veterans in pain,” and the other on veteran use of state medical marijuana programs. In other words, research is already being conducted with veterans at the state level, but the VA is behind the power curve and needs to work closer with states which are obtaining data independently.
In fact, one very serious issue recently discovered by the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Biological Sciences is that the cannabis used for federal research is an entirely different, and much lower quality than that used in other studies. This means that the research currently being done by the government is guaranteed to have skewed results! In fact, the “research grade marijuana was found to genetically group with Hemp samples.”
As noted by Tom Melton, the deputy director of North Carolina State Extension, “The difference is that hemp plants contain no more than 0.3 percent (by dry weight) of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive substance found in marijuana. By comparison, marijuana typically contains 5 to 20 percent THC. You can’t get high on hemp.”
So basically, using mere hemp-grade research material is like testing the effects of caffeine by giving test subjects decaf. Such watered-down results do not accurately demonstrate the effects of medical grade cannabis use. If anything, using low-grade material only serves to “prove” that opioids are more effective, despite the risks of using them.
Meanwhile, Schatz isn’t the only one worried about the opioid crisis among our veteran population. In Oregon, Congressman Earl Blumenauer was recently forced to retract his proposed amendment to allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to veterans living in cannabis-legal states. Veterans Affairs “has its head in the sand,” Blumenauer stated after the VA fought his amendment by citing that doctors could face legal action. Blumenauer, one of the most vocal cannabis advocates in Congress, said during his retraction speech, “Our veterans…need medical marijuana more than any other category of our citizens. We lost 7,000 people to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we’ve lost 100,000 of those veterans to suicides and opioid overdoses. The VA, I’m afraid, has not been as helpful as it should be.”
To be fair, the VA is a federal department. They can only do as they’re told. So even though many states have approved cannabis for either medical and/or recreational use, federal law remains unchanged. Marijuana is a Schedule I Controlled Substance, meaning tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) and other cannabinoids are prohibited by the FDA.
The VA explains its stance clearly: “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is required to follow all federal laws including those regarding marijuana. As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.”
That said, they also explain that vets participating in state marijuana programs are still eligible for their VA care and benefits. In fact, part of Sen. Schatz’s proposed act—to allow vets to talk with their VA doctors about medical marijuana—is probably not needed. According to the VA’s website, their providers are not only allowed to discuss marijuana use with veterans, but they currently do so and veterans are encouraged to bring up the topic of cannabis treatment, if desired. The doctors just can’t recommend, prescribe it or pay for it.
So, as they say, the wheels are in motion! But there’s a long road ahead before vets can expect to obtain a VA cannabis prescription in the near future.