Michael Krawitz leaves no soldier behind: The Executive Director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access on VA and federal marijuana policies
PotNetwork recently spoke with Mike Krawitz, Executive Director of non-profit group Veterans for Medical Cannabis, an organization which works directly with veterans and has been instrumental in shaping cannabis policy. In particular, we discussed the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act; legislation introduced last week by two U.S. Senators. We also discussed the overarching medical and political challenges which come with the issue.
The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act aims to legalize medical marijuana for former American servicemembers. The proposed measure would also allow government doctors to recommend the use of medical marijuana, and assist veterans in accessing and using the drug in accordance with medical marijuana laws in the state in which a patient resides. It would also allocate $15 million to the VA to conduct studies on the use of medical marijuana in pain treatment, as well as the relationship between access to such programs and the use or abuse of opioid painkillers.
Mr. Krawitz is a disabled, retired, United States Air Force veteran and has been a medical cannabis activist since at least the mid-nineties working for the passage of the nation’s first modern medical cannabis bill in California — Prop 215. He provides a great deal of insight into this issue. The following is part one of a special two-part interview:
You had mentioned that VMCA is instrumental in getting these kinds of pieces of legislation developed.
Well, it’s our work that sets the stage for this legislation. Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access engaged the VA in the 1990’s, moving forward, and established the veteran’s marijuana policy at the VA. That’s what these bills are responding to, is that VA policy. Our work has been centered on raising awareness to the fact that VA doctors lack free speech in the area of being able to recommend cannabis to their veteran patients. And a recommendation, not a prescription, is what’s required under state marijuana laws.
We have several states that have these old marijuana laws. Virginia has a marijuana law on the books since the 1970s, and it requires a prescription — or, calls for, doesn’t require — calls for a prescription of cannabis for the treatment of cancer or glaucoma. But the Virginia law went to the appeals court, and the appeals court didn’t say anything about the word prescription.
They had a veteran there that was using cannabis for migraine headaches who showed them medical files and recommendations for migraine headaches, and they didn’t say, “Well, you don’t have a prescription.” So, the prescription didn’t seem to be an issue at all. What they didn’t agree with is being covered by the law with a migraine because [the law] specifically said [only] cancer or glaucoma.
There are 20 different states that have the old medical marijuana laws that never really did anything. They created research acts that never got going. That was, like, New York and elsewhere. They got prescription access for programs that were supposed to be kicked off by the federal change in policy that never happened — you know, that’s Virginia, and Florida, and others. It’s just a patchwork quilt. Florida, up until very recently, had a medical necessity argument. That was the only thing they had on the books — but it was on the books.
It has to be confusing for everyone?
It’s just fascinating. You could write a huge library book on the medical marijuana state-by-state stuff. There’s just so much nuance to it. But right now we have, what, 30, 31 states, something like that, that have what you would call modern marijuana laws. I think all those require a recommendation. And those are the ones that we’re really talking about. Those are the ones that provide real access to a variety of products, you know, in a sensible way that allows for the patient to have real access.
The other programs — there are many, but they have very, very strong limitations, to the point where it’s not really effective for this many patients. Like, if they only allow CBD. Or, in Virginia, there’s a new law that allows for CBD at up to 5 percent of THC. Some patients will benefit from that, for sure, but it doesn’t count as one of our modern medical marijuana laws, I don’t think.
But anyway, this Senate bill — so, this is Senators Nelson and Schatz. Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access is extremely grateful to the senators for considering this information, for the great documentation that they’ve produced, and for this bill which, if passed, would be a godsend to veterans out there. It could, really, literally save lives. And that’s, you know, where we’re at on this.
What happened with The Veterans Equal Access Act?
Are you talking about Blumenauer’s deal? Yeah. See, that’s a really confusing thing because what’s happened is, that bill has actually passed several times, on the Senate and on the House side.
It’s a spending bill — actually an amendment to a spending bill. It gets passed, and then it gets put into what they call a conference committee, and it just gets stripped down by the leadership. This year they didn’t even allow the hearing, they didn’t even allow for them to finish the process, they just stopped the process. It’s really very upsetting.
Like I said earlier on, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, we don’t follow the bills as much day-to-day as a lot of the organizations that we lean on, even the Veterans Cannabis Project and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana laws, et cetera, Americans for Safe Access, Drug Policy Alliance. These are, kind of, the organizations we lean on to follow day-to-day stuff in Congress.
Would you describe your organization’s role in a little more detail, as compared to those other groups?
We’re the paradigm changers; we’re the ones who create the paradigm that, then, spills out into numerous Senate and House bills. But it’s a process in Congress, and even though I don’t follow it, I do understand a little bit that, you know, you don’t always get immediately what you ask for. It takes many efforts, sometimes, to get an act through to the President.
And the spending side of it is really mired in a lot of complications — other than cannabis, you know. There’s other complications as well that make it very partisan and difficult to get through these committees.
How do you feel about the prospects of this current bill?
Again, I’m not the one to ask that, the offices of the Senators would be my first choice and the list of organizations I just gave you. Especially, NORML seems to be following this bill pretty closely. So, yeah, I would refer to my colleagues, Veterans Cannabis Project, Nick Etten, and others who follow the bills more day-to-day. They’ll call me in for the signing; I’ll tell you that, though.
I think it’s important to point out that the VA can study cannabis right now. The VA has perfect authority to study cannabis and all the ability to do it. They have Schedule I resources, and they have the IIR, NIDA, and they can work with the FDA and do this kind of research all the time. So it’s not difficult for them to actually pick up cannabis as an issue and look into it in various different ways — legally, under federal law, with schedule 1. So they really don’t need a special act to be able to do that.
This bill also provides real protection to veterans that don’t have protection right now. When you step onto a VA property, that’s federal property, and even if you’re legal in that state, you’re no longer legal on that federal property, and you could be arrested under federal law for possession. We don’t see a heck of a lot of federal possession charges of veterans with marijuana on VA facilities; it’s not like they’re hunting for that. But this bill, if passed and signed, would give a window of protection for veterans to walk freely around the VA with their cannabis, talk to their doctor about it. Their doctor would be able to recommend it, and the VA would have to study it. They would really be a safe harbor. I really do get the title.
I wrote an article earlier this year about how other bills put forward this year totally ignored protections for veterans. So I’m very happy to see this bill be so specific about that.
The CARERS Act had a line for vets. It captured the essence of the Veterans Equal Access Act. It called upon the VA to give guidance to their VA doctors that they could recommend cannabis. It’s really a nuanced thing of the drug war itself that VA doctors don’t have this ability. And I shouldn’t even say it that way. You have to be careful with your words here. Recently I was looking at NORML’s blog, and they said that under current regulation VA doctors weren’t allowed to recommend. And that’s not true; it’s actually just a current VA directive. A directive and a regulation, again, if you want to get into nuance, but that’s a big difference there, between a directive and a regulation.
The fact is that a VA doctor could certainly recommend cannabis. There’s no sky that’s going to fall on their head; nobody is going to come arrest them. If they did it and did it quietly within the confines of the doctor/patient relationship and it went no further than that VA file, I don’t see how the leadership of the VA would ever even come to know about it.
The VA doctors, you know, do have a certain amount of freedom to follow their medical guidance and their medical training. Having said that, there is a directive out that says they shouldn’t do it, and so they're following the quote/unquote rules, and they’re not going to recommend cannabis.
Where would you say the real problem lies then?
We look at it as a systemic problem. It’s kind of the tip of the iceberg. If they’re not allowed to recommend — and recommendation is a free speech thing — then how free, really, are they to talk about cannabis? To us, it seems pretty obvious that the Veterans Affairs doctor would be quietly discouraged by this current policy from saying anything positive about cannabis or even getting into that subject matter at all.
There’s nothing, currently, to encourage a doctor in the VA to seek out extra credits, you know, to go get what they call continuing medical education, college credit under cannabis. You can do that. Harvard even has the CME courses on cannabis. But, do you think a VA doctor is going to do that when right now, under policy, they’re not allowed to recommend when there’s this kind of, you know, a quiet feeling of prohibition in the air? I think not.
So this bill, again, would be the first thing that I’ve seen that I think would really change that. And it’s because it goes further than just calling on the VA to recommend but to actually give them a safe space where they’re able to possess state-issued marijuana, even while it’s still illegal under federal law.