Millions of American military veterans — more than 1 in 5, according to an American Legion survey — use marijuana to treat a medical ailment.
But many of those veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health care to former service members, isn’t responsive to their needs. Citing the federal prohibition on cannabis, the VA has long said its doctors cannot legally issue recommendations for marijuana, even in states that have medical marijuana programs — an assertion disputed by some advocates and lawyers. It has also largely refused to conduct studies on the potential efficacy of the drug as a treatment for PTSD and other disorders common among vets, instead focusing its research on the harms of using cannabis.
Now, new legislation could change that.
Representative Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Marine Corps officer, announced Wednesday that he has partnered with Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida to introduce a trio of bills that would nudge the VA to better integrate cannabis into the treatment it provides veterans.
Similar bills and amendments have been proposed in Congress in the past but were dropped or remain in committee. However, with Democrats assuming control of the US House in January, the measures proposed by Moulton and Gaetz may have a better shot.(They’ll still need to win support from the Senate and White House to become law.)
“Our veterans are seeking alternative options to opioids, and we should be supporting their desires not to be addicted to painkillers,” Moulton said in a statement. “Let’s not kid ourselves, people are using marijuana — including our veterans. We have an obligation to regulate it and make it as safe as possible.”
One of the measures proposed by Moulton and Gaetz would enshrine in law a current administrative policy that protects the benefits of veterans who disclose that they use cannabis. The proposal would require VA doctors to incorporate cannabis into veterans’ treatment plans and VA facilities to prominently post the policy.
VA doctors still could not issue recommendations for the drug, but Moulton’s office said the policy would end confusion over whether marijuana consumption could lead to a loss of federal benefits and ensure that the VA does not revoke its current policy.
“There’s still a lot of fear from the veteran’s point of view,” said Stephen Mandile, a veteran and prominent marijuana advocate. “You become an outcast at the VA when you start mentioning cannabis.”
Mandile claimed that prior to implementing the new policy, VA doctors put notes in his medical record indicating he had a “social disorder” and an addiction to illegal drugs after learning he had started using cannabis instead of various pharmaceuticals they had prescribed. He also said the VA slashed his benefits in half — supposedly for missing appointments — when he became active in the 2016 campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, he said, other veterans have had their prescriptions for Suboxone — a treatment for opioid addiction — taken away by the VA after testing positive for cannabis.
“It’s a little bit of rage mixed in with a whole lot of sadness,” Mandile said, describing his reaction to the VA’s stance on marijuana.
A second bill from the pair of legislators would force the VA to conduct a national survey of all veterans and VA health care providers to learn, among other measures, how many veterans are using marijuana and for which conditions.
Jeff Herold, a Navy veteran who is also the chief operating officer of the Garden Remedies dispensary in Newton, cheered that proposal, saying he has seen how cannabis can help treat PTSD and chronic pain.
“It’s crazy to think that the solutions to those problems have been out there the whole time, but veterans just haven’t had access to them,” he said. “Research is so important. That’s how you normalize it.”
Herold added that the advent of recreational pot would help veterans access marijuana without having to sign up for a state-issued medical card. Despite strong state privacy protections,some veterans fear the federal government could access the state’s list of patients and strip them of their benefits.
The final bill proposed by Moulton and Gaetz would direct the VA to partner with medical schools that offer medical marijuana courses to educate health care providers on the drug and its uses.
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.