Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Pushes VA to Research Marijuana

Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs U.S. Rep Phil Roe, R-Tenn., speaks Tuesday Feb. 27, 2018, at a morning session of the American Legion's annual Washington Conference. (CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES)
Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs U.S. Rep Phil Roe, R-Tenn., speaks Tuesday Feb. 27, 2018, at a morning session of the American Legion's annual Washington Conference. (CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES)

WASHINGTON -- A group of Republicans and Democrats in the House introduced a bill Tuesday that would clarify the Department of Veterans Affairs has the authority to study medical marijuana and incite the agency to initiate research.

The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act stops short of mandating the VA research marijuana, but the bill makes clear the VA can study it -- a fact recently muddled by former VA Secretary David Shulkin. It would also require VA leaders to report regularly to Congress about their progress on marijuana research.

"It clears up any confusion," said Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL who founded the Veterans Cannabis Project, which advocates for easier access to medical marijuana. "I think it has the opportunity to accelerate research within the VA. It should be within their mandate to research anything that could help veterans."

In a joint news release, lawmakers cited the opioid crisis and the growing demand among veterans organizations that want cannabis available as a treatment option for chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues that disproportionately affect veterans.

The American Legion, which has 2 million members, supports the bill and began advocating for marijuana research two years ago. The group commissioned a poll in November that purports one in five veterans use marijuana to alleviate symptoms of a physical or a mental medical condition.

The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act is being championed in Congress by leaders on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, including its ranking Democrat, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, who described it as a "bipartisan step forward" in the national conversation on medical marijuana.

The Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, stated in February -- for the first time publicly -- that he supported marijuana research.

"As a physician, I am keenly aware of the need to look for opioid alternatives to treat patients' chronic pain," Roe said Tuesday in a written statement. "Since serving as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I've heard from many veterans, both with physical and invisible wounds, who believe medical cannabis could benefit them."

VA's misleading stance

Because marijuana is classified among Schedule 1 drugs, which are defined as having no medical use, federal research is highly restricted.

The first government-approved study of marijuana's effects on veterans with PTSD began in 2017 after the Scottsdale Research Institute in Phoenix worked for seven years to gain federal approvals from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency.

The study has been beset with challenges. It was provided a low quality of marijuana from the federal government, and it's struggling to recruit enough veterans in the Phoenix area who are eligible to participate. Researchers have been blocked by the Phoenix VA from recruiting veterans from that medical center.

Lawmakers said Tuesday that the VA is best-positioned to research medical marijuana, given its history of medical advancements, access to patients who struggle with PTSD and chronic pain and vast resources.

"While we know cannabis can have life-saving effects on veterans suffering from chronic pain or PTSD, there has been a severe lack of research studying the full effect of medicinal cannabis on these veterans," Walz said Tuesday in a written statement. "Simply put, there is no department or organization better suited to conduct this critically important research than VA, and there will never be a better time to act."

Through a series of letters last year, Walz urged Shulkin to support research. In response, Shulkin cited bureaucratic red tape as a reason why the agency wouldn't study the drug.

"VA is committed to research and developing effective ways to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions," Shulkin wrote to Walz. "However, federal law restricts VA's ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects."

At the time, John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, said Shulkin's response mischaracterized federal law and was "an unfortunate combination of false information, incomplete analysis and incomprehensible logic." Walz called the Shulkin's response misleading and disappointing.

The legislation introduced Tuesday will help clear up any confusion created by Shulkin's letters, Etten said.

"At first the VA said they couldn't study it, then they said it was too hard to study," he said. "This provides clarity. The more clarity we get, the better."

Nominee's views unknown

While the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act states the agency can study marijuana, it leaves the decision to the VA secretary, stating "the secretary may conduct and support research relating to the safety and efficacy" of the drug.

President Donald Trump fired Shulkin on March 28 and nominated Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, to replace him. Jackson's views on medical marijuana aren't publicly known -- just one of the many remaining unknowns about the nominee. He's expected to answer questions April 25 during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

The new legislation comes just days after the marijuana industry gained a prominent former Republican.

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio who was previously outspoken against marijuana, endorsed the drug with the April 11 announcement that he was joining the board of Acreage Holdings, a company that cultivates and dispenses marijuana in 11 states.

In a statement, Boehner said "the time has come" for Congress to consider a shift in federal marijuana policy. He cited veterans' support for medical marijuana as a reason why he changed his mind and he argued the VA should be able to recommend it to patients.

VA doctors are prohibited now from prescribing marijuana or referring veterans to medical marijuana programs in states where it's legal. Roe said Tuesday that he believes the VA should study the safety and efficacy of marijuana before Congress acts to loosen those restrictions.

"Until we have sound science behind whether or not medical cannabis is an effective treatment, we should not move forward with prescribing it," he said.

Lawmakers were scheduled to discuss the bill during a subcommittee hearing Tuesday afternoon. They will decide whether to send it to the full House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

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