VA Would Have to Research Medical Marijuana Under Bill Advanced by Senate Panel

Military substance abuse marijuana
Marijuana. (Maj. Will Cox/Georgia Army National Guard)

A key Senate panel has for the first time advanced a bill that would make the Department of Veterans Affairs research marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted in a closed-door session Thursday to advance the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which directs the department to conduct a "large scale" observational study and possibly a clinical trial on the effects of marijuana use on veterans' health.

"Our nation's veterans deserve options when it comes to treating the wounds of war, which is why VA needs to have a better understanding of how medicinal cannabis plays a role in their healing," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement this month when he introduced the bill. "Our bipartisan bill ensures VA is listening to the growing number of veterans who find critical relief from alternative treatments like medicinal cannabis, while working to empower veterans in making safe and informed decisions about their health."

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The Senate version is co-sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. An identical bill was also introduced in the House this week by Reps. Lou Correa, D-Calif., and Jack Bergman, R-Mich., a retired Marine Corps officer.

Versions of the bill have been introduced in both chambers of Congress in previous years, and the measure was advanced out of the House Veterans Affairs Committee in 2021. But Thursday's action marks the first major movement of the bill in the Senate.

Even as more than 20 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and at least 37 states allow medical marijuana, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, and the VA is not permitted to recommend, prescribe or pay for it.

Official VA policy says a veteran will not lose benefits for using marijuana and allows for discussion about marijuana use between VA providers and patients, but advocates say the drug's ambiguous legal status leaves veterans feeling stigmatized and uncomfortable discussing it with their doctors.

A 2017 survey conducted by the American Legion found that 22% of veterans were using marijuana for medical purposes and that 92% of veteran households supported research into medical marijuana.

Under the bill advanced Thursday, the VA would first have to conduct an observational study that examines both the positive and negative health outcomes for veterans using marijuana, including whether those veterans reduce their use of opiates or alcohol. The study would also have to look at pain intensity, sleep quality, agitation and overall quality of life.

Once the observational study is done, the VA would have to report back to Congress on the results, including whether it believes it can do a clinical trial.

If the department then proceeds with a clinical trial, the research would look at how different forms and strengths of the drug affect symptoms of chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Many of our brave men and women in uniform suffer from unseen wounds of war as a result of their sacrifices on behalf of our country, wounds that often manifest in post-traumatic stress," Sullivan said in a statement when the bill was introduced. "We owe it to these courageous service members, past and present, to explore and better understand new remedies for these mental health challenges that are safe and effective, treatments that could give our suffering veterans hope."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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