House lawmakers have introduced legislation that would make it easier for veterans to get medical marijuana in states where that is legal.
The Veterans Equal Access bill, sponsored by Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Earl Blumenaur, D-Ore., would allow Veterans Affairs Department doctors and health care providers to complete the paperwork needed to participate in state medical marijuana programs.
VA now prohibits medical providers from writing prescriptions for medical marijuana. Rohrabacher said he finds it "unconscionable" that the department's doctors "cannot offer a full range of treatments ... which in many cases has been shown to have worked."
"Our antiquated drug laws must catch up with the real suffering of so many of our veterans," Rohrabacher said. "This is now a moral cause and a matter of supreme urgency."
Twenty-three states, the District of Columbia and Guam allow medical marijuana, but post-traumatic stress disorder is a qualifying condition in just seven of those, with Arizona set to become No. 8, starting Jan. 1.
A recent Veterans Health Administration study of 60,000 post-9/11 veterans found that roughly one in six meet the criteria for PTSD, with 16 percent of those who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan screening positive and 11 percent of nondeployers having symptoms.
With some studies indicating that troops with physical pain and mental health issues often abuse opiates — one study of an Army infantry unit after an Afghanistan deployment indicated that 40 percent took the drugs and had not had serious pain in the month before they responded to a survey — the lawmakers said medical marijuana could keep veterans from becoming addicted to potentially harmful medications.
"We should be allowing these wounded warriors access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana, not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows. It's shameful," Blumenauer said.
Veterans Affairs medical providers are encouraged to treat PTSD patients with "evidence-based" practices — therapies proved to to work in rigorous scientific research.
Recommended treatments at VA include cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing as well as medications, including anti-depressants.
There has been no research in the U.S. on the effectiveness of medical marijuana on relieving PTSD symptoms in veterans. A study was approved last year by federal regulators but that work has been put on hold while the lead researcher, Dr. Susan Sisley, and her sponsor, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, find a location to conduct it.
Sisley had planned to perform the research at the University of Arizona in Tucson but her contract was terminated by the school in August. [[[early? why??]]]
The state of Colorado may host at least half the study. The state Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council on Monday recommended that Colorado provide a $2 million grant to support the research.
The Colorado Board of Health will consider the recommendation on Dec. 17.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.