Veterans often use marijuana for pain management and to treat mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. States have recognized marijuana’s potential to help veterans, and now it’s going to the federal level. The Senate has approved a bill that may allow doctors to recommend marijuana for veterans. Read on to find out what it’s about.

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Bill to Recommend Marijuana for Veterans

The bill to recommend marijuana for veterans was approved by a key Senate Committee. It was part of legislation that guides funding for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  It was introduced by Sen Jeff Merkley (D-OR). It included an amendment that would allow VA doctors to recommend marijuana to patients in legal states.

The legislation was approved by a voice vote. It still needs to be approved by Congress.

The measure “simply says, in states that have a medical cannabis program, that a veteran’s doctor can talk to their veteran patient about the pros and cons of medical cannabis and fill out related paperwork should a veteran decide to participate in a state program where such paperwork is required,” said Merkley.

Marijuana for Veterans Has Been Considered Before

This is not the first time a bill that allowed marijuana for veterans has been considered by lawmakers. Reps. Brian Mast (R-FL) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, refiled a standalone bill from the House.

The congressmen have repeatedly introduced the Veterans Equal Access Act, which would require the VA to authorize doctors to discuss medical marijuana with their patients and fill out forms with their recommendations. Although the Act received bipartisan support, as well as committee and floor approval, it has not been enacted.

Other Legislation that Would Allow Marijuana for Veterans

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The current legislation represents one of the many attempts to make marijuana more accessible to veterans.

The House Armed Services Committee proposed the National Defense Authorization Act last week which would create a medical marijuana “pilot program” that would require a study of the therapeutic effects of psychedelics for military members.

Another bill, approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in February, would allow the VA to carry out studies to determine the potential therapeutic benefits of marijuana for veterans with certain conditions. It marked the first time a standalone cannabis legislation passed through a panel in the chamber. However, it was blocked by Senate Republicans before it could move to the floor.

A different bill was filed late last month by Rep, Marianette Miller (R-IA) that would promote research into the benefits of marijuana for veterans with PTSD, chronic pain, and other approved conditions.

A coalition of over 20 veteran service organizations (VSOs) partnered on a letter sent to Congress at the end of 2022 asking them to pass a marijuana for veterans research bill before the end of the last Congress. Congress did not act on the request.

Bills to legalize medical marijuana for veterans were refiled by Bipartisan and Senate lawmakers in April which would allow veterans to possess medical marijuana temporarily and legally following state law. The legislation would mark the first time VA doctors would be allowed to issue such recommendations.

What Does the Legislation to Recommend Marijuana for Veterans Entail?

Merkley’s legislation to recommend marijuana for veterans includes certain protections. It states that the funds made available to the VA cannot be used to:

  1. Interfere with a veteran’s ability to participate in a state-approved medical marijuana program
  2. Deny Department services to a veteran participating in a state-approved medical marijuana program
  3. Limit or interfere with a VA health department provider’s effort to provide recommendations, fill out forms, and take other steps to comply with a state-approved medical marijuana program

The Benefits of Marijuana for Veterans

Marijuana for veterans is a widely researched subject that has been gaining attention with increased legislation measures.

One 2019 study of 93 U.S. military veterans showed that participants used cannabis to treat pain and PTSD as an alternative to alcohol and prescribed medications resulting in a reduced risk of addiction and unwanted side effects.  

A 2022 study of 14 treatment-resistant veterans dealing with PTSD showed improvements with marijuana use including better quality sleep, and a reduction in symptoms like avoidance, alertness, and intrusiveness.

Another 2022 study involving 162 veteran patients with PTSD showed marijuana and other cannabis products were beneficial in improving sleep and reducing anxiety.

A 2021 study showed veterans 60 and over were more likely to use marijuana than non-veterans to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and PTSD.

A 2021 review found that CBD, THC, and synthetic cannabinoids were effective in reducing PTSD symptoms like insomnia, hyperarousal, ad treatment-resistant nightmares. The products were also shown to be well tolerated.

A 2020 review shows that 10% of over 61,000 patients in 12 states use cannabis to reduce symptoms of PTSD making it the third most popular condition for those seeking authorizations.

Cannabis as an Opioid Alternative

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Many veterans dealing with chronic pain use opioids to reduce their symptoms. Opioids are highly addictive and dangerous. Research has shown that cannabis can serve as a safe opioid alternative.

A 2017 study shows that recreational cannabis legalization in Colorado lowered cannabis-related deaths by 0.7 per month.

A 2018 study focused on 2245 patients enrolled in a medical marijuana program. 38% of the patients reduced their use of opioid medications after being treated with cannabis therapy.

Another 2018 study involved 2736 patients above 65 with chronic pain conditions. 93% reported an improvement in their condition after 6 months of cannabis treatment. 18% reduced their opioid dose or stopped using opioids completely.

There is no doubt that marijuana for veterans can yield significant health improvements. It is unclear whether Congress will recognize its benefits and enact legislation to increase access. We can only wait and see what’s to come.