Arizona Veterans Hope Federal Bill Clears Path For Cannabis Research In The VA

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Lorenzo Sullivan is convinced that if he had been approved to take medical marijuana sooner, he’d still be married and he’d still be working as an investment banker.

The 71-year-old Vietnam veteran says the regimen of pills prescribed to him by the VA to treat his PTSD did more harm than good.

“Just read the side effects of some of this stuff,” he said. “No sane person would take that stuff.”

Like many veterans who use cannabis, Sullivan wants to see more federal research to validate the positive results he has seen in his own life. Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs to begin medical marijuana research for the first time.

This week, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act unanimously advanced through a House committee and now heads to the full House floor.

The measure would clarify that the VA can, in fact, legally conduct marijuana research in the first place. The VA has argued in the past that participating in marijuana research would be illegal.

The bill would authorize the VA to study the effects of cannabis on chronic pain, PTSD and “other conditions the [VA] Secretary determines appropriate.” It also requires the VA to provide lawmakers with regular reports on their efforts.

The nation’s first federally approved study on cannabis and veterans with PTSD is currently underway here in the Valley. Scottsdale-based researcher Dr. Sue Sisley has been conducting a triple-blind study with FDA approval, but without help from the VA.

“We could have finished this study probably a year ago if we had the cooperation of the Phoenix VA,” she said.

Without cooperation from the VA, Sisley said it’s taken far longer to find qualified participants. Currently, she has enrolled 61 veterans in the study and is looking for 19 more to begin by October.

Sisley said the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act is a step towards fostering more research like hers, but she worries the bill gives the department too much latitude. She worries the bill’s language allows for marijuana research but doesn’t guarantee it.

“Really what it should say is not that the VA [may] participate [in research], but that the VA must participate,” she said.

Sisley says her study is on track to finish trials in March 2019 and begin analyzing data.

“At this point, we’ve got millions of veterans around the U.S. who are actively using cannabis to manage a variety of ailments and we don’t have enough data to guide them on how to do that safely,” she said.