Senate Gives Veterans Easier Access to MMJ

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A bill that passed the Senate in November would make it easier for military veterans to treat their conditions with medical marijuana.

U.S. CapitolThe bill, which passed Nov. 10, includes an amendment that would let doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs recommend medicinal cannabis to patients living in states where it is legal. The amendment was tacked onto an annual veterans’ funding bill.

The VA itself will not provide access to MMJ. Instead, qualifying veterans would have to get a recommendation from a VA doctor and then use that to buy weed from a legal dispensary. In some states it is also legal to grow the plant at home for medicine.

Bipartisan support

The amendment cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee in May with support on both sides of the aisle. The House recently passed its own veterans’ spending bill, but it did not contain the same amendment. That means members of the two chambers must negotiate a new bill and send it back for a final vote in each.

Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, joined Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon in drafting the amendment. Oregon and Montana each allow medical marijuana, along with another 35 states. Oregon and three others – Washington, Colorado, and Alaska – have gone further and legalized all pot, as has the District of Columbia.

The VA is a massive medical operation, serving 5.8 million veterans in 2014. There are roughly 22 million U.S. veterans, and the number who use the VA system is likely to grow.

Chronic pain common among veterans

Veterans suffer from a wide range of medical and mental health conditions, many treatable with marijuana. Chronic pain is probably the most common reason veterans might use the drug. A study published earlier this year by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “use of marijuana for chronic pain . . . is supported by high-quality evidence.”

Many providers and researchers also believe cannabis is useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. This trauma-induced condition delivers flashbacks, nightmares, aggression, and severe anxiety, and is frequently triggered by the psychological strain of combat.

Less research backing marijuana for PTSD

VeteransThere is less data to back marijuana use for PTSD, but hopes are high in the medical community. Weed is known to be highly effective at treating chronic anxiety, one of the most common symptoms. Pot can also inhibit memory, a trait that could prove helpful in counteracting the bad dreams and flashbacks of PTSD.

The VA, for its part, insists that “controlled studies have not been conducted to evaluate the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana for PTSD,” pointing to studies showing cannabis use can cause addiction. This is true, but only in a small subset, less than 10 percent of users.

A different study, which examined 80 patients with PTSD in New Mexico, concluded that “cannabis is associated with reductions in PTSD symptoms in some patients.” Strong anecdotal evidence from across the country also suggests weed can alleviate the disease.

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