Rescue The Returned: Medical Cannabis Could Save Veterans’ Lives

Photo Credit: Nick Oza

As we take time this Memorial Day weekend to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we also should remember the men and women of our Armed Forces who fought and returned as living casualties of war.

At the core of the American military ethos is a pledge to leave no soldier behind. Yet, too often the soldiers we deploy to fight for our nation come home profoundly different – physically, mentally or emotionally wounded from war. Part of them has been left behind.

Veterans suffer chronic severe pain at rates disproportionately higher than their civilian counterparts (roughly 40 percent higher, according to the National Institutes of Health), helping to explain why the opioid crisis has hit veterans at a rate two times the national average. And according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, upward of 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience post-traumatic stress or depression. On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

While VA physicians are quick to prescribe powerful drug cocktails (opiates and benzodiazepines) in response to these and other service-related conditions, the federal government continues to deny veterans legal access to a demonstrably safer alternative treatment option: medical cannabis.

Even in states such as Washington where medical and adult cannabis use is legal, veterans are stuck in a “catch-22.” The VA is a federal health care system that does not recognize state cannabis laws, leaving veterans unable to pursue or openly discuss this treatment option with their VA primary care providers, and placing them at risk of losing hard-earned benefits because of the Schedule I classification of cannabis under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

In Washington, D.C., political posturing unfortunately still prevails despite a growing body of scientific evidence and countless firsthand patient accounts of the life-saving potential cannabis offers. Never mind that medical cannabis is now legal in 30 states, or that its medicinal value is recognized by health experts such as the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association, and the American Nurses Association as a safer alternative to many legal treatments.

Some key members of Congress, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), just can’t stop perpetuating debunked “Reefer Madness” propaganda to delay federal action and deny veterans legal access to medical cannabis. Do they think their position represents the views of their constituents? I can’t imagine they do.

In October, an American Legion survey of veteran households found that 82 percent want to have cannabis as a federally legal treatment, and 83 percent believe the federal government should legalize medical cannabis. How many other policy positions garner that level of support? I can’t think of any.

With roughly 68,000 veterans living in Eastern Washington, it’s almost as surprising as it is disappointing to see that Rep. McMorris Rodgers has repeatedly voted the wrong way on this issue. She voted against the Veterans Equal Access Amendment to permit VA-affiliated physicians to recommend cannabis therapy to veterans in states that allow for its therapeutic use. She voted against the Rohrabacher/Farr Amendment that prohibits the Department of Justice from interfering with state medical cannabis programs and the patients who rely on them. And she voted against the McClintock/Polis Amendment to prevent Justice Department interference among individuals and businesses engaged in state-compliant medical or recreational cannabis transactions.

There are some encouraging signs, however, that even staunch cannabis opponents are coming around on the issue. Just last month, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner announced his evolution on this issue, from being “unalterably opposed” to cannabis legalization to saying “I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”

And, less than two weeks ago, the House Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously to pass the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act and send the bill to the floor. The bill makes clear that the VA can study medical cannabis and requires the agency to report back to Congress about its progress. A step in the right direction for sure, but far short of where we need to be.

Despite this recent progress, the veteran community is still left with a number of questions and concerns, the most pressing being: When the VA research bill comes up for a vote on the House floor, will Rep. McMorris Rodgers support Washington veterans by voting Yes, or will she turn her back and leave them behind? And if she can’t vote for veterans by supporting medical cannabis research, how can veterans vote for her?