A key Senate panel on Thursday advanced legislation for the first time which would require Veterans Affairs officials to hold clinical trials on using medicinal cannabis for the treatment of chronic pain and post-traumatic stress.
The measure, dubbed the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, passed out of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in a closed session after a brief discussion among lawmakers. Related legislation has advanced in the House in recent years, but Thursday marked the first significant movement for the proposal in the upper chamber.
In a statement accompanying the bill introduction last week, committee chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the proposal an important step in giving veterans more options in how to deal with lingering health issues.
“Our nation’s veterans deserve options when it comes to treating the wounds of war, which is why VA needs to have a better understanding of how medicinal cannabis plays a role in their healing,” he said.
“Our bipartisan bill ensures VA is listening to the growing number of veterans who find critical relief from alternative treatments like medicinal cannabis, while working to empower veterans in making safe and informed decisions about their health.”
The measure was co-sponsored by Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and could be considered by the full Senate in coming weeks. Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. Lou Correa, D-Calif., and Jack Bergman, R-Mich.
It would authorize VA to implement a comprehensive research plan into medicinal cannabis, to include how its use can impact veterans overall quality of life.
The clinical trials would look at not only the direct impact on specific ailments but also the effects of different forms, potencies and methods of cannabis delivery. The legislation does not specify how many veterans would be involved in the research, but calls for a “large scale” study into the issue.
In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences found “conclusive or substantial” evidence that cannabis is helpful in treating chronic pain problems, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders.
But federal research into marijuana-based products has been stalled by the Food and Drug Administration’s classification of the drug as a Schedule I controlled substance, reserved for chemicals with the potential for high abuse risk and considered having no clinically accepted medical use.
Veterans groups and cannabis activists have pushed for changes to that status for years, saying that anecdotal evidence shows significant health benefits for individuals who use medical cannabis.
“Medicinal cannabis is already in use by thousands of veterans across the country, but we don’t yet have the data we need to understand the potential benefits and side effects associated with this alternative therapy,” Sullivan said in a statement.
VA doctors cannot prescribe marijuana, even in the 37 states where it is legal to use. Department officials have said that participation in “state marijuana programs” will not affect veteran eligibility for department care or services.
Thursday’s move drew praise from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of 20 veterans groups to sign a letter of support for the legislation late last year.
“Since 2017, IAVA has made it one of our top priorities to empower veterans who are calling for the medicinal use of cannabis,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of IAVA, in a statement. “Eighty-eight percent of IAVA members support the research of cannabis for medicinal purposes and veterans consistently and passionately have communicated that cannabis offers effective help in tackling some of the most pressing injuries we face when returning from war.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.