BOSTON - U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and a Massachusetts Democrat on Wednesday introduced a package of legislation to change the Department of Veterans Affairs' medical marijuana practices in an attempt to make cannabis a more realistic treatment option for veterans.
Gaetz, a Northwest Florida Republican, joined with U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., to prepare three bills that seek to learn more about how veterans use cannabis, to prepare better medical-marijuana education for providers and to protect the benefits of veterans who use marijuana.
"Our veterans are seeking alternative options to opioids and we should be supporting their desires not to be addicted to painkillers. Let's not kid ourselves, people are using marijuana --- including our veterans," Moulton said in a statement. "We have an obligation to regulate it and make it as safe as possible. We also have an obligation to make sure our veterans are getting the best health care in the world. We have a long road ahead of us until medicinal cannabis is fully researched and legal, but we can take a few steps now to start figuring that out."
A 2011 study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that Veterans Health Administration patients were nearly twice as likely as the general population to die of an accidental opioid overdose, and recent survey data from the American Legion shows that veterans and their caregivers are interested in having medical marijuana as a treatment option.
One bill, according to Moulton's office, would amend and codify an existing VA policy to protect a veterans' benefits if they discuss their medical use of marijuana with providers. Moulton's office said "not all health care providers respond in a standard way and veterans still fear and experience repercussions of some kind."
"Medical cannabis has tremendous potential for veterans. It can reduce chronic pain, without the harmful side effects of opioids, and some early reports indicate that it may even have potential as a treatment for PTSD," Gaetz said in a statement. "Unfortunately, many veterans fear discussing medical cannabis with their doctors, for fear that their benefits will be jeopardized."
The second bill directs the VA to conduct a nationwide survey of all veterans and VA health care providers to learn more about how veterans are using marijuana.
The American Legion reported last year that 22 percent of veterans are using marijuana to treat a medical condition, and 83 percent of veteran households surveyed indicated that they think the federal government should legalize medical cannabis and 82 percent said they want to have medical cannabis as a federally-legal treatment option.
In 2016, the American Legion resolved to "urge the Drug Enforcement Agency to license privately funded medical-marijuana production operations in the United States to enable safe and efficient cannabis drug development research," and to "urge Congress to amend legislation to remove marijuana from schedule I and reclassify it in a category that, at a minimum, will recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value."
The third bill Moulton and Gaetz rolled out Wednesday would instruct the VA to partner with colleges or universities that "have incorporated medical cannabis education into their curriculum" to develop continuing education programs for VA health care providers.
Moulton's office said the bundle of three bills has been endorsed by the Drug Policy Alliance, National Cannabis Industry Association and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Colin A. Young is a reporter for the Boston-based State House News Service, which is part of the same company as The News Service of Florida.
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