Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has made it clear that until federal law changes, the VA will not be studying marijuana for medical purposes. Shulkin’s letter to U.S. Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) is a response to 10 Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee who pleaded for the VA to approve marijuana research that could help veterans suffering with PTSD, brain injuries and chronic pain.
The Looming Opioid Epidemic
Veteran organizations have been asking the federal government to explore whether cannabis could be used as a more effective treatment than the opioids that are currently being prescribed. Prescription opioids are known to have debilitating side effects and tens of thousands of patients die from their use each year. On the other hand, no one has died from marijuana use and studies indicate that it may be more effective than opioids at treating pain and brain injuries. In fact, in states where the plant is legal for medical use, opioid related deaths are down by 23 percent.
A Case of Federal Restriction
Shulkin responded to the request, stating, “VA is committed to researching and developing effective ways to help Veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions. However, federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects.” According to The Washington Post his letter refers to a VA evaluation of previously existing research, that states that there is not enough evidence to show that marijuana can be helpful at treating PTSD and chronic pain.
The Frustrated Response
Shulkin’s letter was met with anger with Walz calling the letter “disappointing and unacceptable.” “VA’s response not only failed to answer our simple question, but they made a disheartening attempt to mislead me, my colleagues and the veteran community in the process,” vented Walz. John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, called the letter “an unfortunate combination of false information, incomplete analysis and incomprehensible logic.” Nick Etten, founder and executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, said, “What America’s veterans need prioritized right now is for cannabis to be treated as a health policy issue. We’re desperate for solutions for the conditions we’re dealing with.”
An American Legion phone survey was released in November of 2017 that indicated that 92 percent of veterans’ households are in support of medical marijuana research and 82 percent would like it to be an available option for medical treatment. Unfortunately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not listening. In fact, he has been working to make it easier for attorneys to prosecute people for federal marijuana infractions in states where the plant is legal. Marijuana is illegal on a federal level under a Schedule I classification. This category is held for the most dangerous drugs such as heroin and LSD that are considered to have a high risk of abuse, contain no medical benefits and for substances that are unsafe to test on humans. Currently 29 states have legalized medical marijuana and 8 states have legalized it for recreational use.