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Politicians push to give veterans the right to use medical cannabis

By Meg Ellis
Nov 14, 2018

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie will consider allowing VA benefits to go toward medical marijuana for veterans, if and when it becomes federally legal.

When asked by a moderator at a National Press Club forum if cannabis was among the alternative therapies that the VA would explore for patients, Secretary Wilkie reminded the group that marijuana is still against federal law.

“If the laws change and there’s medical evidence there, of course, we look at that,” Wilkie said. “But the law is pretty clear at the federal level.”

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There have been legislative attempts to force the VA to allow its doctors to recommend medical marijuana; however, none of these proposals have been enacted. Currently, VA doctors may discuss medical marijuana with their patients, but they cannot help veterans obtain the Schedule I drug.

A legislative reprieve for veterans

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and  Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii sponsored the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act in early September. The legislation would permit VA physicians to issue medical marijuana recommendations in accordance with existing medical marijuana laws.  

“It’s hard to overstate how big a deal it is that Sen. Nelson is stepping up and actually introducing a medical marijuana bill,” Democratic strategist Ben Pollara stated in an interview. “A combination of overwhelming popular support and Rick Scott’s horrific record on medical marijuana as governor have made this an extraordinarily potent issue in the U.S. Senate race.”

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While Sen. Nelson’s bid for reelection remains tied up in a recount, the proposed legislation is being hailed as a victory for veterans. Sen. Nelson previously never addressed cannabis legislation, but the medical marijuana bill is putting him at the front and center of a contentious campaign for cannabis legalization.

“The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act would provide crucial medical and civil protections for the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve this country,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML in a blog post. “It is unconscionable that these brave individuals who protect our nation’s freedom would be treated as criminals when they return home just for treating their medical ailments with a safe and effective option.”

The VA could write prescriptions for medical cannabis

The bill would make it legal for military veterans to use medical marijuana in accordance with state laws. It would also require the VA to conduct studies on the effects of medical marijuana and to research a reduction in opioid abuse in veterans. The bill allocates $15 million for the research.

A growing number of military veterans are using medical marijuana to treat PTSD, chronic pain, and an assortment of other mental and physical ailments. While legislative attempts have been made to allow VA doctors to recommend cannabis, none have ever been enacted into law. If this bill passes, VA doctors could legally recommend medical marijuana for its patients.

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Strekal pointed out that military communities have often been in the limelight for many political issues, and that it is time to stop playing politics when it comes to medical marijuana for vets.

“Historically, veteran and military communities have long been at the forefront of American social change, catalyzing the widespread acceptance of evolving cultural norms and perceptions surrounding racial, gender, and sexual equality.

The therapeutic use of cannabis by veterans follows this trend, and members of Congress should follow their lead and pass the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act,” Strekal said.

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