The largest and perhaps most conservative group representing veterans is asking the Trump administration for help in providing access to medical cannabis. “We are not asking for it to be legalized,” said Louis Celli, National Director of Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation for the American Legion.
“There is overwhelming evidence that it has been beneficial for some vets. The difference is that it is not founded in federal research because it has been illegal.”
In letter requesting a meeting with Jared Kushner, a top White House aide and President Trump’s son in law, the American Legion asks for help “as we seek support from the president to clear the way for clinical research in the cutting edge areas of cannabinoid receptor research.”
Although one in five Americans now have access to legal marijuana, the Veteran’s Administration policy is to stick to federal laws regarding cannabis. In a statement, the VA said, “Possessing, distributing and dispensing marijuana are criminal offenses under the Controlled Substances Act. Even if a state in which a provider practices has a legalized medical marijuana program, federal law prohibits Department of Veterans Affairs physicians from prescribing medical marijuana and from completing forms/paperwork necessary for patients to enroll in State medical marijuana programs.” To address the American Legion’s push for research, they added,
“VA will not provide for use or conduct research with illegal substances regardless of state laws.”
Other veterans groups have not openly supported medical cannabis for PTSD, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars. VFW spokesperson Joe Davis said, “The VFW has no official position regarding this ongoing debate because marijuana is illegal under federal law.”
Conventional treatments for veterans suffering from PTSD include prescription anti-anxiety and/or antipsychotic medications like benzodiazepines that have a heavy, tranquilizing effect that many patients find unbearable. Veterans are also far more likely to suffer from chronic pain caused by conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis, and injuries. By prescribing opioid painkillers for long-term pain conditions, something opioids were never intended to do, addiction and abuse has become a concern among veterans.
“We need solutions,” said Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL and founder of the Veterans Cannabis Project. “We need treatment that works. We need treatment that is not destructive. The VA has been throwing opiates at veterans for almost every condition for the last 15 years. You are looking at a system that has made a problem worse the way they have approached treatment.”
Because the VA is adamant about following current federal laws regarding marijuana, peer-reviewed research has been limited and inconclusive. Even though veterans are starting to admit openly to using cannabis to treat PTSD and other illnesses, the science behind it still needs to be validated before government agencies can move forward.
“I don’t know if cannabis will turn out to be helpful for PTSD,” said Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist at the Scottsdale Research Institute who is conducting one of the very few studies on medical marijuana’s ability to treat PTSD in veterans. “ I know what veterans tell me but until we have rigorous controlled trials, all we have are case studies that are not rigorous enough to make me, medical professionals, health departments or policymakers convinced.”
Sisley was forced out of the University of Arizona in 2014 over politics regarding cannabis research, but has managed to find private funding. Her work is being overseen by the DEA and receives her plant material from the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
“We desperately need more research in this area to inform policymakers,” said Sisley, “I really want to see the most objective data published in peer reviewed medical journals.”
Even with requests for marijuana research from veterans and medical professionals, the Trump administration has been indifferent about medical marijuana at best, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been the most vocal regarding his anti-marijuana stance. Recently, he directed to federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible penalties for drug crimes, a move that goes against Donald Trump’s promise to allow legalization to continue as a state issue.
The letter written by the American Legion requests the administration’s help, “as soon as possible and looks forward to partnering with this administration in the fight against narcotics addiction and reducing the veteran suicide rate from the tragic loss of 20 warriors per day, to zero.”