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‘We should see if it works’: Lawmakers want Veterans Affairs to study whether pot is safer than painkillers

Amy Rising grinds up medical marijuana before smoking. Rising, an Air Force veteran, has been working on legislation that would allow veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder with medical cannabis.
Amy Rising grinds up medical marijuana before smoking. Rising, an Air Force veteran, has been working on legislation that would allow veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder with medical cannabis. (Kevin Cook/For The Washington Post)

A bipartisan measure introduced this week in the House would authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to research whether marijuana is a viable substitute for highly addictive opioids in treating former military personnel suffering from post-
traumatic stress and chronic pain.

VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 would authorize VA to advance such research in a five-year study to examine the drug’s safety and efficacy, and require VA researchers to compile annual status reports for Congress. The bill was introduced by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking minority-party member of the committee, along with 35 co-sponsors — including seven Republicans. Companion legislation is under review by leaders of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“As a physician, I’m keenly aware of the need to look for opioid alternatives to treat patients’ chronic pain,” Roe said in a statement. “I’ve heard from many veterans, both with physical and invisible wounds, who believe medical cannabis could benefit them.”

President Trump has made veterans care one of his signature policy issues, vowing to modernize VA medical system and expand patient access to services offered outside the government’s network. Ending opioid abuse is another of his priorities. It’s unclear whether this initiative has the administration’s support. The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment.

Jeff Sessions: ‘Medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much’

During his campaign, Trump declared that he was “100 percent” in favor of medical marijuana, but his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has called it “hyped, maybe too much.” Sessions has said he’s dubious of pot’s viability to treat opioid addiction, even though studies have shown that in parts of the country where medical marijuana is legal and readily available, there is less dependency on prescription painkillers and fewer deaths associated with opioid abuse. Under Sessions, the Justice Department also has blocked the Drug Enforcement Administration from approving requests to grow pot for use in research.

Sessions’s stance on marijuana — he’s also sought to crack down on the recreational marijuana industry in states where it is legal — had a “chilling effect” on efforts to move this legislation forward, Walz told The Washington Post. Roe’s support, he added, has been vital.

“It’s a researcher’s dream — to have this size of a cohort of veterans to study. Veterans are reporting the relief they are getting and we should study it,” Walz said. “VA’s research arm has a stellar reputation and their partnerships with [the National Institutes of Health] and others makes this a great idea.

“We should have the data,” he added. “We should see if it works.”

Veterans advocacy groups also pushed to have the issue studied.

A survey last year by the American Legion found that 22 percent of the nation’s 20 million veterans reportedly use cannabis to self-treat service-connected medical conditions, including post-
traumatic stress and chronic pain. Moreover, 92 percent of veteran households surveyed said they support such research.

A VA review conducted last year found that about 15 percent of veterans treated for post-
traumatic stress at outpatient clinics reported using marijuana in the previous six months.

Veterans say weed is safer than opioids and works better to fight PTSD

The legislation’s fate is unclear as many in the GOP, which has majorities in both chambers of Congress, remain skeptical of relaxing marijuana laws. Still, the views held by some longtime Republicans have shifted. Former House speaker John A. Boehner, who once said he was “unalterable opposed” to decriminalizing pot, now serves on the board of advisers of Acreage Holdings, which operates in 11 states, growing and selling legal weed.

VA has not taken a position on the bill, said Curt Cashour, the agency’s spokesman.

Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research with controlled substances, including marijuana, allowing it in cases where the agency partners with other researchers. VA is working through federal restrictions in at least one location — the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C. — to initiate ­marijuana-related research focused on veterans in hospice care. The application is pending with the National Institutes of Health.