One of the nation’s most conservative veterans’ groups is appealing to President Donald Trump to reclassify marijuana to allow large-scale research into whether cannabis can help troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The change sought by The American Legion would conflict with the strongly anti-marijuana positions of some administration leaders, most vocally Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Under current rules, doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot even discuss marijuana as an option with patients. But the alternative treatment is gaining support in the medical community, where some researchers hope pot might prove more effective than traditional pharmaceuticals in controlling PTSD symptoms and reducing the record number of veteran suicides.
"We are not asking for it to be legalized," said Louis Celli, the national director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion, which with 2.4 million members is the largest U.S. veterans’ organization. "There is overwhelming evidence that it has been beneficial for some vets. The difference is that it is not founded in federal research because it has been illegal."
The Legion has requested a White House meeting with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and close aide, "as we seek support from the president to clear the way for clinical research in the cutting edge areas of cannabinoid receptor research," according to a recent letter shared with POLITICO.
The request marks a significant turn in the debate over medical marijuana by lending an influential and unexpected voice. The Legion, made up mostly of Vietnam and Korean War-era veterans, is breaking with other leading vets’ groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars in lobbying for the removal of the major roadblock in pursuing marijuana treatment.
But it also comes as the new administration, led by Sessions, is sending strong signals of its desire to thwart marijuana decriminalization and legalization efforts. Expectations are growing in Congress that DOJ may even try to roll back medical marijuana laws in 29 states.
Federal regulators classify marijuana as a "Schedule 1" drug, a category that includes heroin and LSD, saying it offers a “high potential for abuse” and has no accepted medicinal properties. That means that with few exceptions it cannot be studied for therapeutic purposes. And the exceedingly small number of research studies, which have taken years to get off the ground due to the bureaucratic hoops, must rely on only a single government-sponsored lab to provide the cannabis.
"We desperately need more research in this area to inform policymakers," said Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist at the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona who is running one of the only cannabis studies underway focused on vets suffering from PTSD. "I really want to see the most objective data published in peer reviewed medical journals.”
She added that she isn’t prejudging what the outcome of the research will be.
“I don't know if cannabis will turn out to be helpful for PTSD,” Sisley said. “ I know what veterans tell me but until we have rigorous controlled trials, all we have are case studies that are not rigorous enough to make me, medical professionals, health departments or policymakers convinced."
Some veterans’ activists are angry at the federal government’s continued resistance to even studying cannabis, even as an average of 20 vets kill themselves every day.
"We need solutions," said Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL who runs the Veterans Cannabis Project, a health policy organization. "We need treatment that works. We need treatment that is not destructive. The VA has been throwing opiates at veterans for almost every condition for the last 15 years. You are looking at a system that has made a problem worse the way they have approached treatment."
PTSD’s symptoms include sleeplessness, nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of hyperarousal. Sisley’s study includes 14 vets so far and is striving to enroll a total of 76 — with participants who are not receiving a placebo being provided with different varieties of 1.8 grams of marijuana per day, or less than two cigarettes’ worth.
The VA declined to address whether it is reconsidering its stance on the issue, citing the illegality of marijuana in all its forms under federal law.
"Possessing, distributing and dispensing marijuana are criminal offenses under the Controlled Substances Act," the department told POLITICO in a statement. "Even if a state in which a provider practices has a legalized medical marijuana program, federal law prohibits Department of Veterans Affairs physicians from prescribing medical marijuana and from completing forms/paperwork necessary for patients to enroll in State medical marijuana programs."
It added that "VA will not provide for use or conduct research with illegal substances regardless of state laws."
Most leading veterans’ groups are toeing that line, including Veterans of Foreign Wars.
"The VFW has no official position regarding this ongoing debate because marijuana is illegal under federal law," said Joe Davis, the group's spokesman.
But grassroots support is growing among veterans — both young and older — and in Congress to reconsider the current approach. Much of that is because of growing anecdotal evidence that marijuana helps some veterans with PTSD control their symptoms when approved drugs do not, such as ridding them of nightmares and helping them sleep.