Vets Turn To Medical Pot, Despite The VA's Policy

By Kelly Burch 07/26/18

The VA remains focused on studying the drug's "problems of use" instead of its "therapeutic potential."

uniformed veteran saluting

Once a month, the veterans’ hall in Santa Cruz, California, is home to an unlikely meeting, where dozens of former service members line up to receive a voucher for free cannabis products from local distributors. 

“I never touched the stuff in Vietnam,” William Horne, 76, a retired firefighter, told The New York Times. “It was only a few years ago I realized how useful it could be.” 

The VA medical system does not allow providers to discuss or prescribe medical marijuana, since the drug remained banned under federal law, which governs the VA.

However, up to a million veterans who get healthcare through the system have taken matters into their own hands, using marijuana to relieve symptoms of PTSD, pain and other medical condition associated with combat. 

“We have a disconnect in care,” said Marcel Bonn-Miller, a psychologist who worked for years at the veterans hospital in Palo Alto, California, and now teaches at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. “The VA has funded lots of marijuana studies, but not of therapeutic potential. All the work has been related to problems of use.” 

This means that veterans like those in Santa Cruz can end up self-medicating with cannabis without any medical oversight. 

A bill proposed this spring would mandate that the VA study cannabis for treating PTSD and chronic pain. 

“I talk to so many vets who claim they get benefits, but we need research,” said Representative Tim Walz, a Democrat from Minnesota, who introduced the bill along with Phil Roe, a doctor and Republican from Tennessee. “You may be a big advocate of medical marijuana, you may feel it has no value. Either way, you should want the evidence to prove it, and there is no better system to do that research than the VA.” 

Still, VA spokesperson Curt Cashour said the bill is not enough to change the department’s policies. 

“The opportunities for VA to conduct marijuana research are limited because of the restrictions imposed by federal law,” he said. “If Congress wants to facilitate more federal research into Schedule 1 controlled substances such as marijuana, it can always choose to eliminate these restrictions.” 

Former Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs David J. Shulkin said that it’s time the system looked into the potential benefits of cannabis. 

“We have an opioid crisis, a mental health crisis, and we have limited options with how to address them, so we should be looking at everything possible,” he said. Although two small studies are currently being done at the VA, Shulkin would like to see more. 

“In a system as big as ours, that’s not much, certainly not enough,” he said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.