House Says “No” to VA Treating Veterans With Marijuana
Supporters argued that 218 million Americans are already able to obtain medical marijuana, yet veterans who are treated at VA hospitals around the U.S. can’t. Opponents cite concerns about encouraging drug use that’s against federal law and contributes to brain damage.
Narrowly defeated by three votes, the amendment to the Veterans Equal Access Act would’ve allow VA doctors to recommend marijuana to vets for symptoms of PTSD and head trauma in states where it can be legally used for medicinal purposes.
Amendment backers argued that doing so would potentially bring better treatment of PSTD to millions of American veterans in nearly half the country. It would also help relieve the alarming rise in addiction and overdose deaths among veterans receiving prescription opioids.
The Argument Against Marijuana
But concerns endure about marijuana. While not as addictive as other drugs, cannabis has been found to cause psychological dependence in some people and damage to a still-developing brain. Age 25 is typically the earliest point that the brain is considered completely developed, and some research has found it continues for years longer. This was the only argument against allowing VA doctors to recommend pot as a treatment for PTSD or head injuries.
"Why in the world would we give a drug that is addictive, that is prohibited under Schedule I, that is not accepted for any specific mental disease or disorder and enhances psychosis and schizophrenia? Why are we going to give that to our veterans, especially those with PTSD?” said Rep. John Fleming (La.), a physician, in an interview. “That is just absolutely insane."
Bipartisan Support for the VA Marijuana Bill
In a rare show of bipartisanship in Washington, the bill would’ve lifted the present ban on VA doctors making “recommendations” — the term used instead of “prescribed” — to vets about marijuana in the 23 states, the District of Columbia (D.C.) and the territory of Guam, where it's now legal.
Co-author of the amendment Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), while acknowledging that the vote loss was “frustrating,” expressed some hope in the narrow defeat and vowed to fight another day.
“We were able to make the case publicly…about the inequity of a situation where 213 million Americans live in states where they have access to medical marijuana,” Blumenauer told constituents on his website. “Yet veterans are denied the ability to be helped by their VA primary care provider. Forcing them, at their own expense and trouble, to find somebody else who doesn’t have the same doctor-patient relationship with them for their medical needs is not only not fair, but it’s not best medical practice.”
The amendment would not have allowed VA doctors to prescribe or provide medical marijuana to veteran patients. Rather, it would have permitted VA doctors to speak openly about pot treatment and prevented the VA from spending money to block state-legal pot for veterans. One argument is that while pot may cause dependence, its potential benefits might outweigh that risk for conditions that haven’t responded to other treatment.
“Post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury can be more damaging and harmful than injuries that are visible from the outside,” said Blumenauer. “We should be allowing these wounded veterans access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana, not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows.”
Blumenauer cited recent studies have shown that 1 in 5 of the 2.8 million U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are afflicted by PTSD or depression, and of the "nearly one million veterans who receive opioids to treat painful conditions, more than half continue to consume chronically or beyond 90 days."
The congressman also cites a report that VA patients are twice as likely to die from opiate overdoses as others in the U.S. And if civilians in states where medical pot is legal can be treated for PTSD, chemotherapy-induced nausea, multiple sclerosis and severe epilepsy in children, the argument goes, then the country’s veterans should have access, too.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 15 percent of U.S. military use opioids for pain relief, while only 4 percent of the general population does. And in looking at the problem of managing veterans' pain, the National Institutes of Health warns that "drugs such as opioids that are available to manage chronic pain are not consistently effective, have disabling side effects, may exacerbate pain conditions in some patients, and are often misused."
“Our antiquated drug laws must catch up with the real suffering of so many of our veterans,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), one of the bill's co-sponsors, in a statement on his website.
Other lawmakers who’ve joined Blumenauer and Rohrabacher in backing the VA act have included Sam Farr (D-Calif.), Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.).
What Research Says About Marijuana as Treatment for PTSD
Among the evidence that cannabis might be an effective treatment for PTSD are two clinical studies published in 2014. The first study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, saw a "positive effect" in preventing symptoms of PTSD when rats were given a synthetic cannabinoid after experience an electric shock.
The second study was published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs and looked at humans diagnosed with PTSD and reported a "greater than 75 percent reduction" in its symptoms among patients "using cannabis compared to when they were not." However, it cautioned that a "placebo-controlled study is needed" to confirm its effectiveness in treating PTSD.
Same Rights for Veterans and Citizens Alike
Going beyond the evidence of marijuana's effectiveness in treating PTSD and other ills to which veterans are prey, the lawmakers argue that veterans should at least be granted the same rights their fellow citizens have.
“This is now a moral cause and a matter of supreme urgency," said Rohrabacher. "It’s unconscionable that a VA doctor can’t offer a full range of treatments, including medical marijuana which, in many cases has been shown to have worked, to an American veteran who fought valiantly for our country.”
Aside from the statistics on PTSD that Blumenauer cited among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the incidence of PTSD is estimated to be 10 to 31 percent among Vietnam veterans, and the disorder ranks third among the psychiatric complaints diagnosed among veterans treated at VA hospitals, according to a review published in March 2014 in the journal Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation.
What’s next: A senate bill, called the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act (CARERS), which co-sponsor and presidential candidate Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) says would “fundamentally change our nation’s drug policies and have a positive impact on the lives of our Veterans and children.”
For more information, visit Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.
By Nancy Wride
Follow Nancy on Twitter at @NWride