Why the VA is Afraid to Save It’s Patients

VA soldier cannabis

Less than a week before Memorial Day 2019, the holiday when Americans remember those who died in active military service, VA officials stood before House lawmakers and opined that as long as marijuana is illegal on a federal level, the department would not support legislation that allows veterans to use cannabis as treatment.

The discussion mainly surrounded H.R. 1647, sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, which would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients and help them enroll in marijuana programs.

Blumenhauer, the Democrat from Oregon, has long been an advocate of allowing vets and their doctors to make the decision to try medical cannabis as treatment in states where it is already legal.

If the story sounds familiar, it should — Blumenhauer has introduced the bill in every Congress since 2014.

The issue goes beyond the potential therapeutic uses of the drug such as treatment for chronic pain, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he argues. The drug could stand to fix a lethally broken system of care.

“Opioids steal the lives of 115 Americans every day … as veterans with PTSD, chronic pain and any number of ailments are looking for relief, lethal opioid overdoses among VA patients are almost twice the national average. We are doing something wrong,” he said.

The VA also shut down support for two other legislative proposals.

The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, H.R. 712, sponsored by Rep. Lou Correa (D-California) would launch a large-scale clinical trial on the use of cannabis to treat PTSD and chronic pain. According to the VA National Suicide Data Report, there were more than 6,000 Veteran suicides each year from 2008 to 2016.

“It’s time to do research. It’s time for veterans to know what cannabis is good for and what cannabis is not good for,” Correa told his colleagues.

Also not supported by the VA: the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act, H.R. 2192, which would prevent the VA from denying benefits or compensation for veterans legally participating in a state medical marijuana program.

The VA argued that the reason for their lack of support includes that Correa’s bill doesn’t follow standards of medical research involving human subjects. Or that the bill is unnecessary because VA policy already states that veteran benefits can’t be denied based on marijuana use. Or that cannabis is an unproven medical treatment. Or that medical cannabis use would require a patient to seek treatment outside the VA.

But the problem, really, is fear.

Because cannabis is federally illegal, VA doctors would be subject to criminal prosecution if they recommended medical marijuana, with the threat coming from the DEA’s own guidance.

And the VA themselves has admitted the over-prescription of opioids has led to too many deaths — The administration has adjusted policy resulting in a reduction of opioid prescriptions by 22 percent.

Carlos Fuentes, director of national legislative service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told that the VFW also doesn’t support the Veterans Equal Access bill, but admits something needs to change. The “VA must expand research on the efficacy of nontraditional alternatives to opioids,” Fuentes said.

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