Last January, the Massachusetts Legislature’s Cannabis Control Commission discussed a bill introduced by Rep. Michael Soter to expand access to medical marijuana for veterans in the Bay state. On a federal level, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Rep. W. Gregory Steube, (R-FL) have introduced two separate bills with similar proposals.
Massachusetts legislators heard passionate arguments by Stephen Mandile, who spoke in favor of Soter’s bill. A Vietnam veteran, Mandile became addicted to opioids after a doctor prescribed them to treat pain. The army veteran, who appeared before legislators accompanied by his service dog, became isolated and eventually attempted suicide.
In fact, champions of marijuana legalization have often cited a 2014 study that found there were significantly fewer opioid overdoses in states that had legalized medical cannabis. Rep. Soter pointed out that the rate of opioid overdose deaths for veterans in his state is higher than the national average.
Mandile told the story of how cannabis helped him get his life back on track. “Cannabis helps me in ways that 57 medications that the Department of VA Affairs had me trying [couldn’t],” he told the Massachusetts Legislature’s Cannabis Control Commission, “[Marijuana] helped me achieve healing in my mind, body, and soul. . . It has helped me become the kind of father, husband, and son I know my family deserves.”
If Rep. Soter’s bill succeeds, it will extend the number of disabilities that qualify for medical cannabis prescriptions. “I used to be a staunch non-believer,” the lawmaker told his peers, “But having seen its positives, I believe that it is up to us as legislators to give resources other than opioids to our veterans.”
According to a 2019 survey, 83 percent of veterans agree that medicinal cannabis should be legal. Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health has found that veterans are one of the demographics with the highest risk of overdosing on opioids. Following combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, opioid abuse among veterans rose by 55 percent according to an official VA report released in 2015.
Although marijuana is legal in Massachusetts, it’s federal status as a Schedule I drug bans VA doctors from recommending its use. This means that a veteran in need of medicinal cannabis must consult with a private doctor in order to get a medical marijuana card, paying for the consultation out of pocket. The card then has to be renewed periodically, which requires more pricey consultations. With the majority of disabled veterans struggling financially, this is hardly feasible in most cases.
According to Disabled American Veterans (“DAV”), “while the VA cannot deny veterans access to health care or compensation benefits due to medical marijuana use, its providers are prohibited, by law, to recommend or prescribe cannabis. . . VA policy indicates participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services, and VA providers are able to discuss cannabis use with veteran patients and adjust care and treatment plans as needed. Veterans are encouraged to discuss medical marijuana use with their VA providers as part of their confidential medical record.”
In other words, the VA understands cannabis can be beneficial for veterans, but it is still not prescribing it. Notwithstanding, the VA is currently researching the potential benefits of marijuana for disabled veterans. Several steps ahead, Rep. Soter’s bill proposes a model by which a disability diagnosis would be enough to allow veterans to purchase medical cannabis, which is non-taxed, unlike recreational marijuana.
The proposed Veterans Equal Access Act introduced by Rep. W. Gregory Steube provides that:
“(a) In General.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall authorize physicians and other health care providers employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to—
“(1) provide recommendations and opinions to veterans who are residents of States with State marijuana programs regarding the participation of veterans in such State marijuana programs; and
(2) complete forms reflecting such recommendations and opinions.”
According to Skopos Labs, a policy and statistics analysis company, the bill has a four percent chance of being approved by Congress.
As state legislatures and Congress debate these issues, a study published in the Journal of Health Economics last January found that medicinal cannabis access laws reduce opioid prescriptions by 4.2 percent. One would hope legislators will eventually take this information into account when casting their votes.