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By Thomas Mitchell Westword
Congress can't seem to get the veterans hospital in Aurora straightened out, but a Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment to a Veterans Affairs funding bill yesterday that would allow Veterans Health Administration doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where it is legal.
The 2016 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, amended and approved by the committee Thursday afternoon, provides the budget for the Department of Veteran Affairs and would lift the ban on VA physicians prescribing cannabis for their patients. Introduced by Senators Steve Daines of Montana and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the bipartisan amendment passed 18-12 and would mark the first time that the United States Senate has enacted marijuana law reform — if the bill is eventually signed into law by President Barack Obama.
“It’s outrageous that VA doctors are barred from offering treatment to veterans in their care about the potential medical use of marijuana,” Merkley says on his website. “We should be doing everything we can to make life easier for our veterans. Prohibiting VA doctors from talking to their patients about medical marijuana just doesn’t make sense. This is a common sense amendment and I’m glad it has been passed out of committee with bipartisan support.”
Although federal health-care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid allow patients access to state medical marijuana programs, those receiving health care from the VA aren't allowed to seek the same treatment. A 2011 VA order prohibits its doctors from consulting patients about medical marijuana use, forcing veterans to look for alternative routes in the 23 states (and Washington, D.C) where some form of medical marijuana is illegal.
Roger Martin, a U.S. Army veteran and and director of Operation Grow4Vets – a foundation aimed at providing knowledge and resources for veterans to grow their own medical cannabis – sees this as a step in the right direction, but like many steps made in marijuana reform, he feels there is more to be done.
"Obviously its a big deal for veterans," he says. "But while it may be great for Colorado and other legal states, the veterans who aren't lucky enough to live in those states will still get shut out. Even if it can't be prescribed, it'd be nice if they could just talk about cannabis and what it can do."
Martin says he suffers from chronic pain and found himself taking 180 milligrams of the prescribed painkiller Oxycontin every day so he could get some sleep. After being hospitalized for trying to quit his addiction to the painkillers, he began eating marijuana edibles. Now his organization helps veterans suffering from painkiller addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain trauma and other afflictions. Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access – a marijuana reform group – says it's about time that the VA addresses veterans suffering such injuries
"Veterans disproportionately suffer from a number of conditions that can be effectively treated with medical marijuana, such as chronic pain, PTSD, phantom limb syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and cancer from battlefield exposure to carcinogens, just to name a few," Liszewski says in a press release.
A 2012 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association lists opioid overdose as a leading cause of death in America but says veterans with opioids prescribed for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder may be at even higher risk, and the Congressional Research Service published a study in 2014 saying that since 2000 there have been 164,817 documented military deaths related to diagnosed PTSD and 307,282 deaths related to traumatic brain injury.
The bill still has to clear the Senate floor and attain Obama's signature; if it does, it would take effect in 2016.