Proposal calls for VA to study effects of medical cannabis on vets with PTSD, chronic pain

A bipartisan proposal in Congress is calling on the VA to study the health effects of medical cannabis for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.

The lawmakers behind the proposal said we don’t yet have the data needed to understand the potential benefits and side effects associated with cannabis therapy, which is why this measure is needed.

“I get contacted routinely by veterans from the VA who are trying to navigate this,” said Dr. Ryan Vandrey with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “They’ve tried existing treatments and they find that things that are available to them don’t work and then through the VA, there’s no mechanism for them to try medical cannabis.”

The measure dubbed the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Ac of 2023 passed in a key Senate committee last week.

“Our bipartisan bill ensures VA is listening to the growing number of veterans who find critical relief from alternative treatments like medicinal cannabis, while working to empower veterans in making safe and informed decisions about their health,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

“We owe it to these courageous service members, past and present, to explore and better understand new remedies for these mental health challenges that are safe and effective, treatments that could give our suffering veterans hope,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), also a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

The proposal authorizes the VA to do a series of clinical trials to test the effectiveness of different forms of cannabis and the different ways of taking it.

“That’s the value of this bill is it’s not only saying hey let’s invest in medical cannabis research, but let’s look at these differences,” said Vandrey. “Is there going to be a difference in safety and efficacy based on what kind of formulation is being administered to the patients?”

Veterans’ groups applauded the passage of the Senate bill in committee.

“Spurring the VA to act on this issue and study the myriad health benefits of medical cannabis is an important acknowledgment of and first step toward helping those who put their lives on the line for our country,” said Veterans Cannabis Project Executive Director Stephen Jones.

Dr. Vandrey said the measure is a step in the right direction to make sure we have more evidence-based data about the effects of medical cannabis.

“It’s important to understand that a bill like this that pushes for research is not endorsing and saying that everybody should use cannabis,” said Vandrey. “But there are a large number of individuals who are sick, who are suffering, and have tried every other option and I think if we have a reasonable scientific belief that there might be some benefit to those individuals, I think out of compassion for them and for the advancement of science, we should explore those options.”

In response to the proposal, a VA spokesperson said: “While we are unable to discuss pending legislation, prescribing marijuana is illegal under federal law, therefore, VA is unable to prescribe it. We remain committed to improving treatment options for Veterans and support research into potential treatment options that may prove valuable. While federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research with Schedule I controlled substances, we are conducting research within our legal rights. This involves collaboration with a number of federal entities, including the FDA, NIDA, and DEA.”

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