The latest effort to allow military veterans legal access to cannabis arrives in the form of three bills introduced in Congress in May 2019.
Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida submitted the bipartisan bills on May 12, 2019, that would allow the following:
1) Enable veterans to discuss using cannabis with their doctors without fear of repercussions such as losing their benefits;
2) Direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct a national survey of all veterans and VA healthcare providers to learn more about how many veterans are using cannabis and why, and;
3) Train VA doctors and staff to better understand cannabis use among veterans.
“Let's not kid ourselves: people are using marijuana – including our veterans,” Moulton, a former Marine Corps officer who served four tours in Iraq and is currently a contender in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race, told the Boston Globe. “Rather than ignoring this reality, Congress should let doctors talk with their patients about it, and we should learn more about cannabis so it can be safely used and properly regulated.”
Democratic Reps. Darren Soto and Charlie Crist of Florida, along with Hank Johnson of Georgia, joined Moulton and Gaetz as original co-sponsors of the three bills.
Veterans groups that support medicinal cannabis have seen many congressional bills and resolutions come and go without ever solving their pressing medical issues that include chronic pain, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury. These and other ailments sometimes add to veterans' alarming suicide rate: 22 per day, according to VA data.
“Time and again we've seen very similar efforts, and time and again, they've been canceled or Congress decides not to vote on them or allow them to get to the floor for debate,” said Robert Kowalski, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served five years as a security forces member and did two combat tours in Iraq.
He pointed to three legislative proposals that were withdrawn from a congressional committee hearing on May 8, 2019, shortly before the meeting started. Votes expected on the bills were canceled.
“This happens a lot,” Kowalski said.
The bills dropped from that hearing included: the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act, introduced by Republican Rep. Gregory Steube of Florida in April 2019 that would prohibit the VA from denying benefits to veterans participating in a state-approved medical marijuana programs; the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Timothy Walsh of Minnesota in April 2018 that directs the VA to complete a clinical trial on the efficacy of cannabis in treating chronic pain and PTSD, and the Veterans Equal Access Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, would enable VA doctors to recommend and advise veterans on state-approved medical marijuana programs.
“This bill is the logical next step,” Blumenauer told Marijuana Moment. “I will continue to make the case that was made to me a little over five years ago by courageous veterans in Portland, who expressed to me their desire to access cannabis to treat chronic pain. They deserve better.”
Blumenauer has introduced the Veterans Equal Access Act four times since 2014 in addition to similar legislation.
“One of the great tragedies of our time is the failure to adequately address the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Blumenauer said in Stars and Stripes. Founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Blumenauer added that for some veterans, marijuana and cannabis derivatives are lifesavers that keep them from using addictive pain medications such as opioids.
"Opioids steal the lives of 115 Americans every day, as veterans with PTSD, chronic pain and any number of ailments are looking for relief,” Blumenauer said during the congressional hearing, as reported by Military.com.
“Lethal opioid overdoses among VA patients are almost twice the national average. We are doing something wrong."
Of the three bills that were bumped from the congressional hearing and the latest introduced by Moulton and Gaetz, Kowalski said he believes that promoting research and education among VA doctors and staff are of utmost importance.Establishing a training protocol for the VA staff and teaching them about the endocannabinoid system and how it interacts with the body would help them understand why veterans are using medicinal cannabis, why they need cannabis. Click To Tweet
“Establishing a training protocol for the VA staff and teaching them about the endocannabinoid system and how it interacts with the body would help them understand why veterans are using medicinal cannabis, why they need cannabis,” said Kowalski, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 by VA physicians.
As a result of combat wounds he endured in Iraq, Kowalski suffers from mild traumatic brain injury, chronic pain caused by two herniated discs in his back, tendinopathy in his shoulder, and a deteriorated meniscus. With 90% disability and having been declared by the VA as unemployable, Kowalski is a full-time advocate to help veterans gain legal access to medicinal cannabis.
After becoming a medical marijuana patient in 2012 in Arizona, Kowalski moved back to his native Ohio in 2014 where two years later he founded Veterans Ending the Stigma (VETS).
“Like many veterans organizations that support cannabis use, our goal is to use constructive dialogue, anecdotal reasoning, and education to end the stigma associated with veterans who use medical cannabis to treat conditions such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain,” Kowalski told Weedmaps News.
As Memorial Day 2019 approached, House lawmakers passed a slate of nine veteran-themed pieces of legislation on May 21. Several of the measures, which require Senate approval, focused on veterans' mental health issues and suicide prevention. None of them mentioned medicinal cannabis.
Veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by their own hand, the VA noted in its most recent report on suicide.
A Groundswell of Support
A 2017 survey by the 100-year-old American Legion found that 92% of its 2 million members supported medical cannabis research, 82% supported legalizing it, and more than 1 in 5 veterans self-reported using cannabis to alleviate a medical or physical condition.
The demand among veterans has grown even more since then.
According to a 2019 member survey taken by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA):
- 83% of its 400,000 members polled believe that medical cannabis should be legalized;
- 85% agreed that the VA should allow research into cannabis as a treatment option, and;
- 91% said they would pursue cannabis products for treatment if available.
Yet, the VA has said that as long as the federal government maintains cannabis as a Schedule I substance, the agency cannot recommend it or help veterans obtain it.
Kowalski, who will be in Washington, D.C., prior to Memorial Day (May 27, 2019) hoping to meet with Congress members such as Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, encourages veterans to get involved in changing government policy on medicinal cannabis for veterans and the U.S.
“We joined the military to serve a greater purpose,” Kowalski said. “So I encourage veterans to find that purpose now by helping raise awareness of the benefits of medical cannabis and to end the stigma against those who need it.”
Feature image: Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash