This past October, Democratic members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee wrote a letter asking VA Secretary David Shulkin why his department is not conducting research into medical cannabis. In the letter, Tim Walz (Minn.) and the other nine Democratic committee members mentioned in many states that have medical cannabis programs, cannabis is recommended for PTSD and/or chronic pain—conditions that are prevalent with many of our wounded warriors. They go on to ask the secretary why the department is not conducting rigorous research.
Secretary Shulkin’s response is an unfortunate combination of false information and incomplete analysis. Instead of engaging in an honest, comprehensive discussion on the merits of the VA’s position, the secretary seems to ignore committee members’ concerns about an issue that affects the lives of millions of soldiers and veterans across the United States.
“The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don’t have it.”
– George Bernard Shaw
There are major problems with Secretary Shulkin’s response to the Democratic members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Those problems range from a mischaracterization of federal law to a faulty analysis of current medical research and more. The shortcomings in the secretary’s response should alarm everyone from members of Congress to the wounded warriors treated by the VA.
It is important to keep in context what Ranking Member Walz and his colleagues requested of the secretary. They did not ask the VA to come out in support of medical cannabis. They also did not ask the VA to begin dispensing medical cannabis nationally, or even in the states that have passed medical cannabis reforms. They are simply asking that VA’s research arm—the Office of Research and Development—conduct clinical research on the efficacy of cannabis as a therapy for veterans.
There is not a debate about whether states should legalize cannabis, nor is it pitting liberal reformers against conservative elements of the Trump administration. The request is an empirical question in science: can cannabis be used to treat conditions in soldiers? Americans want our veterans to have the best care possible. They also want to make sure the VA is doing all that it can to provide up-to-date, cutting-edge, and effective medicines for patients. With hundreds of thousands of patients across the country demonstrating benefits from medical cannabis, and veterans self-medicating on a daily basis, VA owes it to veterans to conduct rigorous research into cannabis as a treatment for these conditions.
In Secretary Shulkin’s response, he claims that “…Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana…” That claim is simply is not true. Doctors and researchers at the VA or in VA hospitals can conduct research into the medical properties of cannabis and remain fully compliant with federal laws, regulations, and the United States’ obligations under international agreements. Doctors and other researchers across the United States conduct research into the health effects, risks, and benefits of cannabis for medical purposes every day. Nothing under federal law treats a VA researcher differently than it does a doctor or a researcher at the University of Colorado.
There is a protocol that must be followed in order to conduct such research. It’s arduous, and the approval process for federally-approved medical cannabis research has a chilling effect on science. It is inappropriately difficult and puts the government between doctors and patients who want answers. However, that arduous bureaucracy does not stop VA from conducting research any more than it does anyone else.
“You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”
– Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Since his initial response, the secretary now claims the use of the word “restricts” means the bureaucratic process is burdensome for VA. That statement is at least accurate. However, it is completely inappropriate for the VA secretary to claim that a challenging bureaucratic process is a reason to avoid research that may help our wounded warriors get better.
What’s more, if that bureaucratic process is so arduous it prevents the VA from conducting important research that should help veterans, it is incumbent upon the secretary to do something about it. Much of the red tape he refers to exists because of rules set by HHS and DEA with regard to registration, licensure, evaluation, and the supply of research-grade cannabis. Secretary Shulkin should not complain about bureaucracy. Instead, he should work with leadership at HHS, DEA, and DOJ to create a process that puts the needs of veterans’ above the bureaucratic agenda of the moment.