Pot for Pain: Medical Marijuana for Veterans Blocked as Republicans Shoot Down Bill, But it Could Still Happen

Medical marijuana
A 1-ounce bag of medicinal marijuana is displayed at the Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, California, on March 25, 2010. The House Rules Committee blocked the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that protected state marijuana legislation. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Republican lawmakers have blocked an amendment to a bill that would have allowed veterans to access medical marijuana through federal doctors in states where the medicinal use of the drug is legal.

The House Rules Committee removed the so-called “Veterans Equal Access” amendment from the Veterans Affairs (VA) department’s funding bill for the next year, McClatchy DC reported.

The amendment proposed that VA doctors should consider medical marijuana as a form of pain relief for interested patients in states that have legalized the drug’s use in medicine. VA physicians are currently proscribed from recommending medical marijuana, since the drug is illegal under federal law. Veterans can seek out medical cannabis but have to pay for it out of their own pocket.

Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and Washington, DC. Veterans organizations previously advocated that the drug should be permitted for use as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read more: A young leukemia survivor skipped chemo and took medical marijuana instead

Democratic representative Earl Blumenauer, who sponsored the amendment, told McClatchy that he was “bitterly disappointed” with the result. “This is a subject that has gained a great deal more attention and momentum,” he said. “More people recognize that the VA has really failed our veterans when it has come to pain management, opioids and opioid dependency.”

But despite the setback, there is still a possibility that medical marijuana for veterans could become a reality. A fiscal bill in the Senate contains a similar provision, proposed by Republican senator Steve Daines, which would allow veterans to access medical marijuana through the VA in states where it is legal.

The American Legion, which has 2.4 million members and is the largest wartime veterans association in the United States, has called for the classification of marijuana to be reconsidered so that further research can be conducted into its medical benefits.

U.S. veterans flags U.S. military veterans set up 1,892 American flags on the National Mall, in commemoration of the 1,892 veterans who committed suicide that year, in Washington, DC on March 27, 2014. Win McNamee/Getty

Marijuana, along with drugs such as ecstasy and heroin, is currently classified as a Schedule I controlled substance; the classification means it is considered to be a substance with a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medical use in the United States and is subject to tight restrictions. Federal doctors, including those in the VA department, are barred from even discussing medical marijuana as an option for patients due to the classification.

The American Legion sent a letter to the White House in April, requesting a meeting with President Donald Trump to discuss, among other veterans’ issues, the reclassification of marijuana. “It’s time the federal government took action to remove barriers to scientific research on this very important subject,” Joe Plenzler, the Legion’s director of media relations, told pro-marijuana news site The Cannabist.

In recent years, veterans have frequently been prescribed with opioids to treat PTSD and pain. As troops returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, prescriptions for opioid painkillers surged from over 1 million in the fiscal year 2000 to more than 6 million in 2012 and 2013, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Cannabis A man smoking cannabis, London, January 2004. David Bebber/Reuters

The VA has recently sought to reduce painkiller prescriptions due to the well-documented problem of opioid abuse and addiction among veterans. In the fiscal year 2016, the VA treated 66,000 ex-servicemen and women for opioid addiction. Opioid abuse has been linked to homelessness, prison and suicide among veterans. Medical marijuana advocates have promoted the drug as a viable alternative to opioids.

The Trump administration has signaled it intends to take a hard line on marijuana. Trump’s embattled attorney general, Jeff Sessions— an outspoken critic of legalization of the drug —has already requested that barriers to the Department of Justice interfering in medical marijuana businesses be removed, even when the businesses operate in states where the drug is legal. A forthcoming DOJ report is expected to link marijuana use to violent crime, which could lead to tougher sentences for those who use, grow or sell the drug.

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