Veterans' Advocates Look Askance at Cannabis Bills 

House passes bills promoting cannabis as a treatment for vets, but critics say they're weak.

Just as it was becoming apparent that Covid-19 was going to be a big problem in United States, diverting the attention of Congress and everyone else, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs managed to pass two major bills addressing medical cannabis for veterans. One would enable more research into the role cannabis might play in relieving some of the ailments common to military veterans, and particularly those who have seen combat. The other would remove what is in effect a gag order on doctors at the Veteran's Administration, who are currently forbidden from even discussing cannabis with their patients.

But some cannabis advocates are less than pleased, especially with what happened with the research bill. A Republican committee member, Phil Roe of Tennessee, managed to add an amendment that essentially gutted the bill's provisions, and transformed it to nearly mirror his own bill from several years back, which critics say would yield less scientifically sound research. This was done with the approval of the committee's Democratic chairman, Mark Takano (D-Calif.).

The Medicinal Cannabis Research Act (HR-712), sponsored by Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), passed the Committee on Veteran's Affairs by a 15-11 vote. Meanwhile, the Veteran's Equal Access Act (HR-1647), sponsored by Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), passed the committee unanimously.

Correa's original bill called for formal clinical research trials and included mandates that all research approved by the VA must adhere to specific scientific guidelines and be conducted according to strict, timely reporting requirements. Roe's amendment, which in effect became the final bill, gives the VA a year to devise a plan to support research, and calls for "essentially no specific research trials," said Eric Goepel, founder and CEO of the Veteran's Cannabis Coalition. He suspects that the provision calling for research plan is just a stall tactic.

"It will just give the VA leeway to drag this out for at least a year," he said. In introducing his amendment, Roe said his aim was to remove "onerous restrictions" from researchers. Opponents of that amendment say those "restrictions" are precisely what would make the research reliable, and thus useful to doctors.

"They just don't want to do cannabis research," Goepel said of the VA. The reason he cited: institutional bias. The VA (like much of the mainstream medical profession in general) has been prescribing pharmaceuticals for so long that it reflexively opposes alternatives, and it looks for reasons to stymie the incursion of cannabis into medicine and to dismiss even the more promising claims for medical pot, Goepel said. "They say the lack of evidence is the reason they don't want to gather more evidence. It's recursive logic."

Meanwhile, the rate of suicide among veterans continues to rise, thanks in part to the overprescription of opioids, which also causes a lot of accidental overdoses. Some of the ailments those drugs are meant to treat, such as chronic pain, might in many cases be better treated with cannabis. "They see this molecule, THC, as a threat," Goepel said. "But they are many more harmful molecules being prescribed right now." The more harmful molecules, of course, have the advantage of being supported by the powerful, entrenched lobbying efforts of Big Pharma.

The other bill would enable VA doctors working in states with legal medical cannabis to make recommendations and otherwise discuss cannabis-based treatments. It also would forbid the VA from denying benefits to patients who are participating in legal medical marijuana programs, as has been done in the past. That, too, falls a bit short, Goepel said. The bill would allow doctors to discuss cannabis with their patients, and even recommend it. But they would still not allowed be to prescribe it. Furthermore, he noted, there is no formal program to educate VA physicians — or the many physicians trained by the VA — about cannabis. This bill doesn't address that problem.

Cannabis advocates unreservedly applaud one provision of the bill, however: it would block the VA from denying benefits to patients who have participated in legal medical-cannabis programs.

Veterans have always been on the front lines of medical cannabis. If it weren't for them, it's conceivable that medical pot would never have grown into the multi-billion-dollar industry it has become. It's even possible that recreational cannabis might not have been legalized (where it has been) or that legalization would have come much later, and perhaps in a much weaker form.

This is thanks largely to the fact that combat veterans, in particular, tend to suffer from many of the ailments that are treatable with cannabis, or at least those for which cannabis shows a lot of promise, including post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, insomnia, and depression.

It took years before enough veterans started signing on with medical cannabis for them to become a political force, but once they did, they became formidable. A couple of years ago, the American Legion — about as culturally conservative a group as there is in the United States — surveyed its members on the question. Nearly all of them — 92 percent — said they support research into medical cannabis. And 83 percent said they support federal legalization of medical cannabis.

Yet that level of support still hasn't fully swayed the VA, as the weakness of these bills reveals. "We're frustrated by this maneuvering and posturing but we're not giving up on this setback," said Etienne Fontan, vice-president and co-owner of the Berkeley Patients Group, a veteran, and a longtime proponent of medical cannabis. "Too many of our brothers and sisters need access."

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