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Democratic Senators Push Bill to Grant Veterans Access to Medical Cannabis

The latest effort to bring more medical marijuana to veterans.

A.J. Herrington

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Democratic Senators Push Bill to Grant Veterans Access to Medical Cannabis
Roxana Gonzalez/ Shutterstock

Two Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would allow doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs to prescribe medical marijuana for their patients. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Bill Schatz from Hawaii introduced the measure, the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, on Wednesday. A similar measure, known as the Veterans Equal Access Act (HR 1820), is pending in the House of Representatives.

Nelson said in a press release that the bill will allow veterans access to the same treatment alternatives available to others through a temporary five-year safe harbor program.

“Federal law prohibits VA doctors from prescribing or recommending medical marijuana to veterans,” Nelson said. “This legislation will allow veterans in Florida and elsewhere the same access to legitimately prescribed medication, just as any other patient in those 31 states would have.”

If passed, the act will allow veterans to “use, possess, or transport medical marijuana in accordance with the laws of the State in which the use, possession, or transport occurs,” according to the text of the bill.

The bill’s findings note that medical marijuana may be an effective way to address the nationwide epidemic of opioid overdoses by providing veterans a new way to treat chronic pain.

“Chronic pain affects the veteran population, with almost 60 percent of veterans returning from serving in the Armed Forces in the Middle East, and more than 50 percent of older veterans, who are using the health care system of the Department of Veterans Affairs living with some form of chronic pain,” the bill reads.

“Opioids account for approximately 63 percent of all drug deaths in the United States. In 2011, veterans were twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses as nonveterans. States with medical cannabis laws have a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with States without medical cannabis laws. Marijuana and its compounds show promise for treating a wide range of diseases and disorders, including pain management. Medical marijuana in States where it is legal may serve as a less harmful alternative to opioids in treating veterans.”

Bill Also Calls For Research

The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act also calls on the VA to conduct research on “the effects of medical marijuana on veterans in pain.”

The bill also mandates study on “the relationship between treatment programs involving medical marijuana that are approved by States, the access of veterans to such programs, and a reduction in opioid abuse among veterans.” The measure calls for $15 million dollars of the VA’s appropriation for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years to be spent on the research.

Justin Strekal, the political director for cannabis activist group NORML, supports the measure, saying it provides protection for veterans who choose to use medicinal cannabis.

“The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act would provide crucial medical and civil protections for the men and women who put their lives on the line to serve this country,” Strekal said. “It is unconscionable that these brave individuals who protect our nation’s freedoms would be treated as criminals when they return home just for treating their medical ailments with a safe and effective option. We applaud and appreciate the leadership by Senators Schatz and Nelson in putting forward this legislation.”

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