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Other voices: VA wrong on marijuana

By The Fayetteville Observer

Here’s one more place where this country’s four-decade-long, trillion-dollar War on Drugs continues to fail us: veterans’ health.

Despite the fact that more than a fifth of all veterans report using marijuana to treat a medical condition, the Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to conduct even the most basic research into the potential uses of medical marijuana. A group of 10 Democrats who serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee recently asked VA Secretary David Shulkin to commit to medical marijuana research, specifically whether it could help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

Shulkin gave them a flat turndown. He wouldn’t even commit the VA to referring veterans to other clinics or projects that use medical cannabis. “VA is committed to researching and developing effective ways to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions,” Shulkin wrote in his response. “However, federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such projects.”

That’s nonsense. As the Brookings Institution’s John Hudak told The Washington Post, “… there are no restrictions on doing scientific research on it. Universities do this all the time.” Hudak, who is deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management, said, “It’s really a cop-out for the VA to say, ‘Oh, we’re not doing work on this because of federal law’ when actually federal law allows them to do that.”

Rep. Tim Walz, the Minnesota Democrat who is ranking member of the committee, said, “VA’s response not only failed to answer our simple question, but they made a disheartening attempt to mislead me, my colleagues and the veteran community in the process” by claiming there’s a prohibition on research.

What there is, apparently across federal bureaucracies, is a resurgence in old thinking about drugs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to rekindle the government’s old and failed attempts to curtail drug use through interdiction and prohibition, a costly strategy that not only hasn’t worked but has led to what may be the most widespread drug use in American history.

A substantial part of the country’s opioid crisis is rooted in widespread VA prescription of opioid painkillers for veterans. While Shulkin says the VA has cut back opioid prescriptions by 33 percent since 2013, its alternatives of yoga, meditation, acupuncture and hypnosis aren’t always effective for PTSD patients and are even less useful for chronic pain.

Although there has been little research into the use of medical marijuana for those conditions, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from the thousands of veterans who have turned to it when other treatments failed to help them.

Incredibly, marijuana is still classified by the government as a Schedule I drug — the same classification that includes heroin. Any college kid could tell the feds why that’s ridiculous.

At least 29 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, and eight have gone a step further and approved it for recreational use as well. On the campaign trail, President Trump said he supported providing medical marijuana for people with serious illnesses. Yet his attorney general appears to be living in a time warp, 40 years behind the rest of government, and he may have the VA secretary there with him. Sessions wants to launch a new offensive against marijuana and earlier this month he acted to make it easier for federal prosecutors to go after marijuana dealers in the states that have legalized it. In doing so, he’s running head-on into the widespread belief that cannabis should be legalized. An American Legion survey of veterans found that 92 percent support research into whether medical marijuana will help treat physical and mental conditions and 82 percent said they want to have medical marijuana made legal.

On that score, the veterans are right. It’s time for our federal leaders, and especially the VA, to join the rest of us in the 21st century.

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