VA Says ‘No’ to Congress on Marijuana Research

VA Says ‘No’ to Congress on Marijuana Research

President Joe Biden and the Department of Veterans Affairs he controls continue charting their own path when it comes to allowing more research into medical marijuana. While lawmakers in both parties believe cannabis can be helpful for certain medical conditions inflicting many veterans, the president and his administration are blocking

At a hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced it was opposed to a plan that would “direct VA to conduct clinical research with varying forms of medicinal cannabis to evaluate the safety and effects of cannabis on health outcomes of veterans with PTSD and veterans with chronic pain.”

The plan is part of HR-2916, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2021, sponsored by Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Peter Meijer (R-MI). The Senate’s companion bill, S-1467, is led by Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK). Earlier versions of the bill cleared the full House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in 2018 and 2020. 

For their part, VA officials say the department is already conducting research.

“They don’t want to do alcohol. They don’t want to do pharmaceuticals. They want something like cannabis.”

“The VA is claiming that it would interfere with current studies it is already doing,” Joy Ilem, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, told The News Station. “I do know that the VA is pretty conservative in terms of how it conducts its research and oversight. And so it doesn’t necessarily stick out to me that they would have taken the position that they did.”

Ilem says it does make sense because human participants would be included in the study, and the VA is cautious about all research involving people, especially since marijuana affects everyone differently. 

“I do understand they’re very strict,” she said, “and everything is done by the book.”

Someone at the Association of American Medical Colleges told Ilem the VA’s opposition wasn’t unreasonable and it’s not Congress’ job to tell the VA how to conduct research. There are other avenues legislators could take, like providing more funding and/or descheduling marijuana to make research easier to conduct.

“Also, they [the VA] say that they’re currently supporting a clinical trial of CBD to treat PTSD, where it’s being used as an add-on treatment for standard care for psychotherapy,” Ilem said. “And they’re saying they’re waiting for the results of that.”

Many Democrats feel ending Biden’s continued opposition to marijuana reform could be a major political win for his administration and the party in general, given every poll in the country shows citizen support for cannabis reform.

Correa’s bill, which is popular and has bipartisan support, would require the VA to research the effects of marijuana on veterans suffering chronic pain or PTSD — both factors which have led to a disturbing spike in veteran suicides since the U.S. first launched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Veteran suicides slowed under former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, though they’ve crept back up since. Image of 2020 numbers courtesy of the VA

“They’re not drug dealers. They’re veterans who brought back invisible wounds from wars,” he told The News Station in 2020. “They don’t want to do alcohol. They don’t want to do pharmaceuticals. They want something like cannabis.”

The VA disagrees about whether cannabis could help veterans who suffer from PTSD.

“Research to date does not support cannabis as an effective PTSD treatment, and some studies suggest cannabis can be harmful, particularly when used for long periods of time,” its website states, adding it’s watching the rising use of cannabis among veterans. “Given these concerns, cannabis is not recommended for the treatment of PTSD.”

The VA says it supports veterans who use cannabis in legal states. But Derek Debus, an Arizona attorney and Marine veteran who specializes in military law and VA benefit issues, said that isn’t always the case.

“I’ve had clients in the past that, if they admit to medical marijuana usage, won’t get any medication at all through the VA,” Debus told the Missouri Independent.

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Understanding the VA’s conservative approach to research might be helpful for advocacy groups as things move along, Ilem said.

“They regularly fund clinical trials under an approved expert peer review system,” she said. “I think it’s more of an internal understanding about how they do things, you know, how their peer review system works.”

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