Justice

Here's How Close We Are to Making Medical Marijuana Legal for Vets

Last week, the House of Representatives narrowly voted down a proposal that would have allowed doctors at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals to discuss medical marijuana as a treatment option with patients.

The measure, proposed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) as an amendment to 2016's fiscal appropriations bill, failed by a margin of three votes, prompting boos from Democrats in the House chamber and criticism from advocates. 

"It's certainly disappointing that the House just voted to continue a senseless rule that prevents doctors from treating military veterans with a medicine proven to work for a number of serious conditions," Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority told ATTN:, adding that despite the loss, the razor-thin margin signaled an encouraging shift in officials' attitudes towards the drug. 

"[T]he fact that we came so close is a good sign of things to come. It is no longer considered politically risky for elected officials to work on scaling back the failed federal war on marijuana, as the 210 'yea' votes we just saw demonstrates," he said. Thirty-five Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while eight Democrats voted against it. A total of eight abstained. "This is just the first in what will be a series of important marijuana votes in Congress this year, and we expect to win more than we lose, just like we did last year," Angell wrote in an email. 

According to the Hill, the same amendment was proposed to the same appropriations bill last year, which funds the VA and military construction projects, though it was defeated by a wider margin: 195-222.

Though the vote failed, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were clear about the merits of the amendment and its implications for the health of American veterans.

"Let's lift the gag order," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.). "We owe it to our veterans to give them complete information when they ask for it, even if that means discussing medical marijuana[.]" 

Speaking in favor of his measure, Rep. Blumenauer, in his signature bow-tie and bicycle lapel pin, argued that veterans were no different from the millions of Americans who already use the drug.

"The medical marijuana train has left the station," he said. "A million Americans have a legal right to use medical marijuana and do so. You want to treat veterans differently...Veterans seen by agency doctors are dying from prescription drug overdoses, nearly twice the national average. Nobody dies from an overdose of marijuana." 

Blumenauer and Farr were echoed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who underlined what he described as a hypocritical stance.

"As Republicans, we supposedly believe in the doctor-patient relationship. But apparently some of my colleagues believe that relationship is not relevant when it comes to VA doctors and their patients," he said. "It is criminal that we send our men and women off to war where their minds and bodies are broken and then deny them the ability to obtain a recommendation from a legitimate VA doctor upon their return home."

Medical marijuana is currently legal in over 30 states and the District of Columbia and legal recreationally in four states and Washington, D.C.. But the drug is still listed as a Schedule 1 substance federally, which means that it is not proven to have any potential medical benefits. Despite that classification, it is widely used to treat chronic pain, depression, symptoms of severe epilepsy, and research has suggested it can used to treat symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder––benefits recognized by the VA. According to a 2012 VA report, nearly 30 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are affected by PTSD or depression. 

The stigma and experimentalism surrounding the drug remains at the forefront of some policymakers' minds when it comes to legalizing it for veterans facing complex and nuanced disorders. "Why in the world would we give a drug that is addictive, that is prohibited under Schedule 1, that is not accepted for any specific mental disease or disorder and enhances psychosis and schizophrenia, why are we going to give that to our veterans, especially those with PTSD?" asked Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), who is also a physician. "That is just absolutely insane[.]" 

To advocates, medical marijuana poses less of a threat than what they see as the dangerously addictive traditional opiate drugs used to treat common symptoms in veterans. To Angell, the decision about what to prescribe isn't one for policymakers. "I can't understand why our opponents are so afraid of simply leaving medical decisions about what's best for patients up to individual doctors. The amendment wouldn't force any doctor to recommend marijuana, and it wouldn't force any patient to use it," he said. 

"All we're asking about here is allowing doctors, when they decide that marijuana is the best option to treat their patients' maladies, to recommend it in those instances."