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Lawmakers ask VA secretary to research marijuana as an alternative to opioids

Then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks at a press briefing at the White House on May 17, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are urging the new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to research marijuana as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday, the lawmakers asked him to initiate a “rigorous clinical trial” of the drug. In recent years, more veterans have come out in support of marijuana as a potential alternative to addictive opioids.

“We believe VA has the authority, ability and capacity to carry out such a study,” they wrote. “Many of our nation’s veterans already use medicinal cannabis, and they deserve to have full knowledge of the potential benefits and side effects of this alternative therapy.”

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, signed the letter, along with Democrats Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota.

Their appeal follows months of seeking help on the issue from former VA Secretary David Shulkin. During Shulkin’s last months in the job, Walz urged him to support marijuana research. Shulkin cited bureaucratic red tape as a reason why the agency couldn’t.

Wilkie, who was sworn in as VA secretary in July, hasn’t spoken publicly about medical marijuana as a potential treatment for veterans.

“I think this is an opportunity to get him on the record and get a more clear understanding of what his perception is about how the VA can conduct cannabis research,” said Eric Goepel, founder of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, an advocacy group founded by veterans to promote the legal use of marijuana.

Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL who founded the Veterans Cannabis Project, another veterans advocacy group dedicated to the medicinal use of marijuana, said he also has “no idea” where Wilkie stands on the drug. The lawmakers asked him for a prompt response to their letter.

“Secretary Wilkie has the opportunity to put medicine before politics and address one of the greatest needs of veterans right now, and that is alternative therapies for the signature wounds of war,” Etten said. “I hope he does the right thing and addresses this directly and aggressively.”

Roe and Walz, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced legislation in April to clarify that the VA has the authority to study marijuana.

The purpose of the bill, titled the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, is to push the VA to initiate research, but it stops short of mandating it.

The House committee unanimously sent the bill to the full House in May. However, it’s uncertain when – or whether – it will be scheduled for a vote on the House floor.

“Chairman Roe is still supportive of [the bill] but is open to other avenues to facilitate research, which is why he signed Senator Tester’s letter,” said Tiffany Haverly, communications director for Roe. “The chairman believes scientific evidence is needed before VA can determine whether or not medicinal cannabis is an effective treatment for veterans.”


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