May 17, 2019

Let's Talk About Cannabis and the VA

Originally published in the Washington Examiner.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves: Americans are using cannabis, and many of them are veterans.

According to the American Legion, more than 1 in 5 veterans currently use cannabis. A vast majority of veteran households (93%) support medical cannabis research, and a large majority want the government to offer it as federally legal medical treatment.

I don’t need a study to tell me that. I often hear about this from the Marines I served with and who either live in states where cannabis is legal, or wish they did. Many of them are using cannabis so that they don’t get addicted to opioids or other more dangerous alternatives.

We talk to each other because none of my friends can talk about cannabis with their doctors at the VA. Despite the fact that cannabis is either legal or decriminalized in more than half the states in the country, they might lose their VA benefits if they do.

This is a big problem for a few reasons.

Firstly, because your doctor should know about the drugs you’re taking, legal or otherwise. Veterans should be able to talk with doctors, not just fellow vets, to get basic medical advice.

More broadly, because veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die from accidental opioid overdoses, and many believe marijuana is a safer alternative.

The problems build upon each other. Last year, for example, the Boston Globe reported on a veteran who was stripped of a prescription that helped him fight an opioid addiction because he tested positive for cannabis. Another had his benefits cut in half after talking about his use of cannabis with his doctor.

Veterans seeking cannabis aren’t druggies. Many are American heroes who deserve a VA that researches cannabis and protects veterans from opioids using any method that’s safe. Federal drug laws currently prevent researchers from figuring that out.

It’s time for change.

A few days ago, I introduced three bipartisan bills that would modernize the VA’s cannabis policies. One would protect veterans who tell their doctors about cannabis usage from losing their benefits. The bill would also let doctors at the VA incorporate marijuana into veterans’ treatment plans.

The second bill would direct the VA to conduct a national survey of all veterans and VA healthcare providers to learn more about how many veterans are using cannabis, and why.

The third bill would expand access to educational resources, so VA doctors can learn more about medical cannabis.

I partnered with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to introduce these bills. We worked hard to make them something that members of both parties could support. Congress should also have a broader debate about legalizing marijuana nationwide.

Some in my party have questioned whether an incremental approach through the VA is a good idea. They have asked, “shouldn’t we focus on sentencing reform and full legalization?”

That’s a false choice. My experience as a resident of Massachusetts and an early supporter of legalizing cannabis there bears that out. In 2016, I broke with the establishment in my state to endorse the ballot measure that ultimately legalized cannabis, because I believed in its benefits for veterans and others.

The measure succeeded, and earlier this year, one of the first public dispensaries of cannabis opened in Salem, Mass., where I live. The incremental steps in states that legalized cannabis have advanced the nation’s discussion about sentencing laws and other drug reforms like safe injection sites.

There are also valid concerns. Looser marijuana laws ought to come with increased accountability for bad decisions like driving under the influence or circumventing regulated dispensaries. Legalization would help the government regulate cannabis better, and we shouldn’t stop enforcing other drug laws that keep people safe.

Ultimately, making the VA a place where veterans can discuss and maybe someday access cannabis, will help our country evolve on this issue too. Through that evolution, I believe we will be able to tackle bigger challenges together—like ending the fundamentally-unjust process of locking people up for possessing marijuana, and, in effect, sentencing them to a lifetime of fewer job opportunities. I support releasing people who are in jail for marijuana possession and expunging their records, especially because Americans in more than half the states in the nation voted to decriminalize this.

I suspect many will disagree. But cannabis use is something we should at least talk about with each other and as a nation— and it’s especially something veterans should be able to discuss with our doctors at the VA.