Massachusetts Commission Seeks MMJ Access For Veterans

cannabis badge on military uniform Massachusetts
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The Massachusetts state cannabis commission affirmed its support for making medical marijuana more affordable and accessible for the hundreds of thousands of veterans who live in Massachusetts.

The five commissioners voted unanimously to pass a statement in favor of amending the medical marijuana use statute at a meeting last week.

They called for expanding the definition of “qualifying patient” to include veterans under the care of the Department of Veteran Affairs who can provide documentation that they have qualifying conditions, as well as changing the definition of “debilitating medical condition” to include additional conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and opioid use disorder.

Making such a change would require action from the state Legislature, where bills to make similar changes have been proposed in the House and the Senate.

“This is really a question of access and equity for our veterans,” said Commissioner Bruce Stebbins.

Commissioners and researchers laid out the specific reasons that veterans need additional support to get access to medical cannabis: they are more likely to experience PTSD and addiction issues, and insurance provided through the Department of Veteran Affairs does not cover marijuana because it is still illegal at the federal level. There are more than 300,000 veterans in Massachusetts, and over 70,000 veterans in Massachusetts get their health care through the VA.

Marion McNabb, president of the Cannabis Center of Excellence, said veterans reported a “great return to quality of life” from using medical marijuana.

“Veterans and civilians are reporting they would prefer to choose cannabis to relieve their anxiety, depression or chronic pain, [rather] than some of the other over-the-counter or more traditional pharmaceuticals,” McNabb said.

McNabb said there is still a disconnect between the positive effects veterans report and the barriers they encounter at the VA, and that legislation would also help bridge that divide.

“Even if you are disclosing to your VA doctor your medical cannabis use, the veterans themselves are not entirely sure if the VA clinicians accepts its use, [or] understands its use,” McNabb said. “With it being legal and non-lethal, I think we should do everything in our power to help our veterans have access.”

Since marijuana is legal in Massachusetts, veterans have options for other providers. But those third-party providers may have concerns about prescribing marijuana. High costs could also pose a barrier: one veteran’s testimony read aloud at the commission said that his family spends $1,000 each month on medical marijuana, while the opioids prescribed for his pain were fully covered by his insurance.

Kimberly Roy, one of the commissioners at the CCC, said veterans have found medical marijuana as a means of harm reduction, helping them address conditions like opioid addiction.

“We’re talking about a subset of the population that’s served this country — that has made incredible sacrifices — and we’re just asking to streamline the process for them,” Roy said.

Changing the definition of what it means to be a qualifying patient would allow veterans to become certified patients in Massachusetts, meaning they avoid paying a tax on each cannabis purchase and can obtain stronger types of cannabis, Roy said.

Some of the proposed changes would impact more than just veterans, too. One study estimated that nearly one in 20 Massachusetts residents has opioid use disorder.

“PTSD, as we know, affects our veterans — but it also can … impact many of those who are in emergency response services,” Stebbins said.

The commission’s recommendation aligns with bills that are pending before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy. No hearings are currently scheduled.

“As we’ve learned, sometimes these things take multiple [legislative] sessions,” Stebbins said. “And putting kind of a stake into the ground as to what our position is might be reflected in other bills that might come down the line.”