Hey Federal Government, Just Give Veterans Medical Marijuana Access Already

A great step in helping veterans would be federal legalization of marijuana.

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Currently, 39 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam all have some form of legalized marijuana. At bare minimum, most of those states have some sort of medical marijuana program that allows pot to be prescribed for everything from pain relief to multiple sclerosis. Yet, for the nation’s almost 22 million veterans, medical marijuana is inaccessible through the VA health care system. This is true even in states where recreational marijuana is legal. Privileging faulty political logic over the wellbeing of veterans is embarrassing. Let’s move on.

That veterans cannot be prescribed marijuana through VA programs, especially in states where marijuana is legal, is cruel adherence to a failed federal drug policy. For many, marijuana prescriptions would be cheaper, more easily accessible, and more effective than pharmaceuticals. In fact, veterans who use marijuana legally without a prescription often face the choice of smoking or forfeiting prescription narcotic painkillers and other services. It’s an individual choice and a collective failure.

Here’s the rub. Multiple studies have found that marijuana use is an effective treatment against depression caused by chronic stress. Multiple states with medical marijuana programs specifically approve the use of marijuana to treat PTSD. So why deny veterans access to medical marijuana through VA programs?

The easy answer is that while it’s just a matter of time before all states have some sort of legalized marijuana, the federal government continues to fight its arcane battle on legalized pot. While it’s a small victory that the federal government is no longer actively threatening to sue states for legalizing pot, and, at least in the case of Colorado, even protecting state decriminalization laws, legalizing marijuana at the federal level seems like it’s going to take a while. Given that collecting tax revenue is better for the bottom line (and quality of life) than jailing drug users, it seems likely legalization will come. But we need to do something in the meantime.

In fairness, the Senate tried to pass a bill that would have allowed for VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana and to ban them from preventing vets who use marijuana legally from other prescriptions and services. However, the weed portion of the bill was stripped out by the House of Representatives in December 2015. To not allow vets the option to use legal marijuana, much less penalize them if they use legal marijuana, is a travesty. As Congresswoman Dina Titus of Nevada wrote in a recent policy essay on the subject, denying veterans medical access to marijuana simply raises the risk they will seek other illicit drugs. This is patronizing and indicative of a commitment to treating symptoms rather than root causes of distress.

With almost 30% of veterans suffering from PTSD alone, it seems unthinkable that the VA would take such a hard line on denying vets access to a medicine that could ease their suffering. Some proponents of the continued ban point to the lack of studies proving marijuana is effective in fighting PTSD symptoms, but as Titus points out, the federal government prohibits any studies involving pot and veterans to begin with, so those findings will never come one way or another.

But the question should be, even if there aren’t a number of studies confirming it, what could it possibly hurt? The federal government should follow the lead of the majority of the states and legalize marijuana for every vet who could use is medicinally. If nothing else, allow the brave men and women who put their lives and health on the line one more avenue to relief, especially if it’s already legal in the state they reside.

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