Cannabis is now legal for both recreational and medicinal use in 11 states (plus D.C), and legal for medicinal use only in 22 others. Despite this, veterans who use cannabis for chronic pain or PTSD are still embroiled in an ongoing battle with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to gain access to it.

Current issues facing veterans 

Currently, VA health care providers aren’t allowed to help veterans obtain cannabis in any way, and the VA won’t reimburse those who pay for it out of their own pockets–even if they’re participating in a state-approved cannabis program.

According to the VA, “controlled studies have not been conducted to evaluate the safety or effectiveness of medical cannabis for PTSD. Thus, there is no evidence at this time that cannabis is an effective treatment for PTSD.” This is likely due to the heavy restrictions the federal government has put on cannabis research. In the past, the VA have themselves declined participation in FDA-approved research proposals.

A lack of research

In the absence of research, the VA has often been opposed to legislative efforts aimed at improving veteran access to cannabis for medical purposes. As recently as April, three proposed bills were rejected by the VA, including one “which would authorize VA health care providers to offer recommendations and opinions to veterans regarding participation in state cannabis programs.” The second would direct “the secretary of the VA to carry out a clinical trial of the effects of cannabis on certain health outcomes”, while the third would block the VA secretary from denying benefits to veterans who participate in state-approved cannabis programs.

What can be done?

If you’re wondering why this issue is so contentious despite positive independent studies on the benefits of cannabis, as well as nearly three-quarters of states legalizing it in some form, well–it’s complicated. In the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule one controlled substance, meaning it is still seen as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” In order to get proper medical research done, legislation is needed. But without the research, it is difficult to change legislation, making this a catch-22 of the worst kind.

Advocacy groups are pushing for the VA to relax the prescribing ban, as well as conduct research on the possible health benefits of cannabis in order to finally change the way veterans are able to treat their conditions. Regardless of the conclusions of the research, veterans groups say they “just want the VA to be able to conduct it, and they want veterans to be able to talk to their providers about whether they should be using cannabis.”