Today, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) and Chairman Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) introduced H.R. 5520, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, to authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to advance scientific and medical research into the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis usage by veterans with diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain. Upon introduction, the legislation was cosponsored by 28 Democrats and 7 Republicans.
Ranking Member Walz and Chairman Roe, along with Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT), who plans to introduce companion legislation in the Senate, and original cosponsor Representative Lou Correa (D-CA), made the following statements in support of the bill:
"We have all heard the stories of veterans who have used cannabis medicinally to cope with physical and psychological injuries sustained during their service to our country," said Ranking Member Walz. "In fact, 22 percent of veterans report using cannabis as a safer and more effective alternative to opioids and drug cocktails currently prescribed by VA for medical conditions such as PTSD or chronic pain; unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the dangerous and often deadly side effects associated with opioids. While we know cannabis can have life-saving effects on veterans suffering from chronic pain or PTSD, there has been a severe lack of research studying the full effect of medicinal cannabis on these veterans. That is why I am so proud to introduce this legislation. Simply put, there is no department or organization better suited to conduct this critically important research than VA, and there will never be a better time to act. I proudly stand with the 92% of veterans who support research into medicinal cannabis and call on VA to make advancing such research a top priority."
"As a physician, I am keenly aware of the need to look for opioid alternatives to treat patients' chronic pain," said Chairman Roe. "Since serving as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I've heard from many veterans, both with physical and invisible wounds, who believe medical cannabis could benefit them. This is why I support the department researching cannabis just like any other drug to see if this alternative therapy would truly benefit patients. Until we have sound science behind whether or not medical cannabis is an effective treatment, we should not move forward with prescribing it, and I believe VA is uniquely equipped to conduct this important research."
"If veterans can ease some of the chronic pain or symptoms of injuries or illness they have received through service to our country without turning to opioids, the VA has a responsibility to research it," said Ranking Member Tester. "Veterans must have a say in how they manage their pain and the VA needs to listen to those veterans who are finding relief in medicinal cannabis."
"I am honored to join Chairman Roe and Ranking Member Walz, and Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Ranking Member Jon Tester in finally taking action to help veterans in need of medical cannabis," said Rep. Correa. "With the opioid crisis raging across American, it is imperative to the health and safety of our veterans that we find alternative treatments for chronic pain and service-related injuries. Throughout my district, I meet veterans who depend on cannabis to manage their pain. Numerous veterans attest to the treatment benefits of medical cannabis. It's time the VA did a formal study. Rather than risk becoming dependent on opioids, these veterans find relief in medical cannabis. Opioid prescriptions for veterans have increased by 270 percent since 2003, resulting in 68,000 veterans developing an opioid addiction and a two-fold increase in accidental opioid overdose deaths. This is unacceptable. I want to bring these brave men and women the relief they deserve. This legislation will finally allow the VA to performed research on medical cannabis. Our veterans risk everything for us. We need to do everything we can to help them once they are home."
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 would promote scientific and medical research into the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis usage on veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and other illnesses and injuries by (1) clarifying that research into medicinal cannabis is well within the authority of VA and (2) by requiring VA to report to Congress on how it intends to exercise that authority. The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 is a pragmatic and bipartisan piece of legislation that will improve and in many cases save the lives of veterans across the country.
While data is limited, the American Legion, a congressionally-chartered Veteran Service Organization, conducted a survey in October 2017 on a portion of its approximately 2.2 million veteran members and found that 92% of all respondents support medical research and 82% of all respondents support legalizing medicinal cannabis. The survey also found that "22 percent of veterans are currently using cannabis to treat a medical condition." Therefore, it is clear that medical research into the safety and efficacy of cannabis usage for medical purposes is timely, necessary, and widely supported by the veteran community.
As many veterans are currently using cannabis for medicinal purposes, it is important that clinicians are able to fully advise veterans on the impacts, harms, and benefits of cannabis use on veterans with various diagnoses including PTSD and chronic pain.
In 1925, Congress established the Veterans Health Administration Office of Research and Development (ORD) in order to facilitate the Department of Veterans Affairs' fulfillment of its research and development program's mission "to discover knowledge and create innovations that advance health care for Veterans and the Nation." Since its inception, ORD has earned a reputation as a leader in research and development, and the ability of ORD to produce cutting-edge, scientifically-sound, clinically necessary and life-saving research is undeniable. For this reason, ORD should be responsible for determining the efficacy and safety of cannabis-usage on our nation's veterans.
The introduction of the legislation follows months of letters sent back and forth between Democrats on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, led by Ranking Member Walz, and VA. In the letters to VA, House Democrats called on the department to conduct research into medicinal cannabis for veterans suffering from diagnoses including PTSD and chronic pain, or otherwise identify any specific barriers to such research. VA responded by saying they were unable to carry out such research, citing bureaucratic red tape, onerous interagency coordination, and a lack of Congressional authority. The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 will make it abundantly clear that VA has the authority to advance scientific and medical research into the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis usage on veterans suffering from diagnoses such as PTSD and chronic pain and will require VA to report to Congress on its progress carrying out such research once a year for five years.
Since 1925, the VA's Office of Research and Development has advanced veterans' and the nation's healthcare through industry-leading research and development.
This bill would ensure VA knows it has the authority and Congress has the oversight necessary to advance research into cannabis usage for medicinal purposes.
This legislation represents a bipartisan step forward in the national conversation on medicinal cannabis.
Read Ranking Member Walz's October 26 letter here.
Read Secretary Shulkin's December 21 letter here.
Read Ranking Member Walz's January 16 letter here.