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Congress prepares to vote on cannabis research, treatment for veterans

Twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia have enabled the use of marijuana to treat PTSD, and the number has doubled just in the last two years amid increasingly visible advocacy from veterans’ groups.

WASHINGTON – A congressional committee approved a bill Tuesday that would allow cannabis to be used to treat veterans suffering chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Both ailments disproportionately affect many veterans, according to witnesses who testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Colorado U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman said the bill could create a better alternative to the highly addictive opioids commonly used by Veterans Administration doctors.

“I am not opposed to using marijuana extracts, following the appropriate medical research, as an alternative to indiscriminately prescribing opioids to our veterans to deal with chronic pain,” Coffman told Colorado Politics. “I have long fought the VA for being too ‘drug-centric’ in their modality of treatment for combat-related stress disorders because it only masks the symptoms as opposed to addressing the underlying problems.”

There’s little doubt chronic pain treatment will be offered at the $2 billion Veterans Administration Hospital set to open in Aurora in August. However, changes in design and budgets in the eight years since construction started make it unclear whether a post-traumatic stress disorder clinic originally planned for the hospital will open there.

Coffman, R-Aurora, is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that approved the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act. The committee’s approval moves the bill toward a second vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Coffman gave his tentative support for using cannabis instead of opioids to treat veterans on the same day Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette warned about dangers of the powerful painkillers.

During a congressional hearing, she accused drug companies of contributing to a crisis of opioid addictions by promoting and over-distributing the drugs in West Virginia and elsewhere.

“I hope that what we learn today will inform investigations in other states, including Colorado, which has had similar concerns raised concerning over-distribution,” she said.

The Medicinal Cannabis Research Act is only a preliminary step toward treating veterans with cannabis, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Currently, the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which means it has no medical use. As a result, the government has been reluctant to research its potential medical benefits.

The Medicinal Cannabis Research Act is supposed to overcome the regulatory obstacle of the Schedule 1 classification. It does not require the Veterans Administration to study the drug, only makes it clear the research would be encouraged.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, said, “I’ve heard from many veterans who believe medical cannabis can help them lead healthy lives. Right now, we don’t know if that’s true or not, and that’s why we believe the VA should conduct rigorous research on medical cannabis just like any other medication or treatment.”

Congressmen who introduced the bill in April said the Veterans Administration’s large resources and number of patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain make it best-equipped to research cannabis treatments.

Darin Overstreet, spokesman for the Colorado National Guard, said he was unable to address the medical consequences of the Medicinal Cannabis Research Act. However, he added, “The Colorado (Department of Military and Veterans Affairs) supports safe and effective medical treatments for those who have sacrificed on behalf of our nation.”

The Medicinal Cannabis Research Act was part of a package of bills the committee approved to reform the treatment of veterans.

Other legislative proposals would give veterans greater access to private doctors through the Veterans Choice Program.

Congress instituted the program after revelations in 2014 of long wait times at Veterans Administration hospitals that imperiled patients who needed quick care. The Veterans Choice Program gave them a limited authorization to visit their own private doctors at the expense of the Veterans Administration.

Some of the allegations of dangerously long wait times were lodged against the Veterans Administration’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System in Denver.

The VA Missions Act the Veterans Affairs Committee approved Tuesday would expand the list of patient eligible to use private health care specialists. A vote in Congress is expected to turn the bill over for a signature by the end of this month to President Donald Trump, who has not opposed it.