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Others’ opinion: VA should move ahead with marijuana research

Minneapolis StarTribune

Mankato psychologist George Komaridis has worked with returning veterans since the Vietnam War. He has listened to multiple generations’ nightmares and has done his best to help vets recover from physical wounds and emotional trauma.

But Komaridis also knows that there are some who traditional therapy and medications just can’t reach. “There is pain they can’t tolerate, and they’re going to do something because the pain is too much,” he said. That extra step has long involved alcohol, but today, it often means relying on marijuana. A recent American Legion survey showed that about one-fifth of veterans nationwide use cannabis for medical reasons — suggesting that modern treatments aren’t working for far too many.

Those who served deserve nothing less than a nation that explores every option to heal them on the homefront. That’s why the recent correspondence between Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., inspires outrage. Shulkin, according to letters exchanged, declined the commendable request from Walz and nine other House members to wield the massive resources of this specialized medical system to investigate whether cannabis could help treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic pain.

It hardly seems too much to ask, especially when the American Legion is also advocating for this research. This respected organization recognizes that veterans are not getting the help they need. According to VA stats, “veterans accounted for 18 percent of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults, while veterans constituted 8.5 percent of the U.S. population.” The VA, which got a public-relations black eye for recklessly dispensing opioid painkillers, ought to see cannabis research as important to rebuild trust.

To be clear, no one is asking the agency to casually hand out cannabis. The Oct. 26 letter from Walz and the other House members asks the VA to “conduct and examine” research into medical marijuana’s potential use in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. (In Minnesota, medical marijuana can be used for PTSD and “intractable pain.”) The letter also notes that the VA is “uniquely situated” to do the research, given its world-class doctors and the patients it serves.

Shulkin’s Dec. 21 reply to Walz is disingenuous. In declining to pursue the research, Shulkin said he is restricted by federal law. But an independent expert from the respected Brookings Institution recently slammed Shulkin’s reasoning, saying that researchers at the VA or its hospitals can do this research and remain compliant with federal law. Yes, there are additional hoops to jump through, but it can be done.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board shares Walz’s concerns that pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, where Attorney General Jeff Sessions has antiquated notions about marijuana, may have made Shulkin skittish about acting without congressional direction. But getting Congress to pass a bill to make this happen will take time.

Research could provide more detailed answers about medical marijuana’s benefits — or lack thereof — for veterans and provide best-practice guidelines for use. This information is sorely needed and shouldn’t be delayed because Shulkin lacks the backbone to have his agency do it.