Veterans Advocates Criticize VA For Stalling Medical Marijuana Research At Joint Congressional Hearings

Representatives of major Veterans Services Organization (VSOs) testified before a series of joint Senate and House committee this week and last week, voicing support for medical marijuana research and criticizing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for “dragging their feet” on the issue.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) asked the VSO leaders for their perspective on veterans’ use of cannabis as an alternative treatment option and where they stand on his bipartisan VA marijuana research bill that cleared his committee last month.

On Wednesday, the chairman raised the topic with members of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), stating that “effective treatment options must be based on comprehensive research and science—and VA research should empower veterans to make informed decisions about their health.”

He asked the witnesses whether they felt “VA has been proactive in conducting research on veterans cannabis use and what can be done about it if the answer is no.”

Patrick Murray, national legislative director at VFW, said that the organization is “in favor of researching that,” and “we want to be smart about as many alternative therapies we provide for our veterans around the country as possible.”

“We don’t think VA is doing enough of a good job on that. They’ve been dragging their feet,” he said. “They’ve been saying they’ve been doing studies and research for years. We’re waiting to see the results, as everybody is. We want to see that actually get done appropriately.”

VFW Commander-in-Chief Timothy Bordland told Tester that there may be “mixed emotions” among members about cannabis policy issues, but there’s recognition that veterans with conditions such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have benefitted from medical marijuana.

“There’s a lot of veterans out there that get so much medication, they don’t know what to take half the time they have it. Some of them have poor eyesight and they take the wrong medication,” he said.

Medical cannabis “will prevent overdose,” Bordland said. “This will prevent a lot of other issues. Medical cannabis is a possible solution to help with TBI and mental health issues.”

Tester also brought up the issue during the second of the three hearings of the joint committee, asking for input from Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

Butler affirmed that he “absolutely” believes that VA needs to be promoting studies into the medical efficacy of cannabis for veterans.

“We’ve been pushing for this for years,” he said. “At a minimum, VA should be doing research. I can’t even keep up with the number of states that now have legal use of medicinal cannabis.”

“At a minimum, VA should be doing this research so that we can understand just how effective it is,” he added. “Research should be a no brainer. But yet, for years, we’ve been getting pushback on that, so we certainly hope that this is the year we can change that.”

IAVA said in written testimony that it has “made it one of our top priorities to empower veterans who are calling for the medicinal use of cannabis” since 2017, pointing to internal surveys showing the vast majority of its membership aligned on that issue.

In its written testimony for the first of the joint hearings, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) also noted their support for “VA research into the medical efficacy of cannabis for treatment of service-connected disabled veterans.”

VSOs have continually highlighted cannabis research issues at the annual joint hearings for several years in a row now.

In the current Congress, Tester’s VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which he introduced with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), is intended to mandate studies by VA to explore the therapeutic potential of cannabis for veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.

Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) also filed a companion bill in the House.

The bill has been revised in this latest version to give VA latitude in determining for itself whether it’s capable of overseeing clinical trials into marijuana for chronic pain and PTSD.

The significant change appears to be responsive to concerns expressed by VA officials who testified against the earlier proposals.

A previous version of the legislation cleared a House committee in 2021, despite the protests of VA officials. Earlier iterations of the measure also moved through committee in 2020 and 2018 as well, but none were enacted into law.

The legislation has been revised this Congress to include a requirement for a retroactive observation study to look into the experiences of veterans who’ve used marijuana for such treatment in the past outside of the clinical trail context.

But there’s another change that observers have picked up on as potentially giving VA the ability to avoid fulfilling a key objective on clinical trials.

Within 90 days of completion of an observational study on the effects of cannabis on PTSD and chronic pain, VA would be required to submit a report to Congress on whether it’s capable of carrying out the more robust clinical trials that were at the center of earlier forms of the legislation.

“The Secretary may terminate the clinical trials…if the Secretary determines that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unable to meet clinical guideline requirements necessary to conduct such trials or the clinical trials would create excessive risk to participant,” the bill text says.

The reason that’s important, in part, is because VA has repeatedly come out against past versions of the reform proposal, with the department suggesting that the research mandate goes too far with too many requirements. Under the new language, VA could finish the qualitative observational study and then independently decide against carrying out the clinical trial portion involving human subjects.

Other revisions in the new version include removing language that required studies to involve at least seven cannabis varieties and instead leaving that open-ended. That may help further address some of VA’s prior concerns about the measure being unduly prescriptive.

Correa had a conversation with VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the issue of marijuana and veterans last year, and so there were some heightened expectations that the department might reverse course on the legislation—but that hasn’t happened to date.

A coalition of more than 20 veterans service organizations (VSOs) sent a letter to congressional leaders late last year to urge the passage of a marijuana and veterans research bill before the end of the last Congress. But that did not pan out.

Also, a large-scale defense spending bill that was enacted at the end of the last session excluded separate language from a previously House-passed version that would have authorized VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans living in legal states.

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