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Sullivan bill would support medical research into pot for veterans

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan is the Republican lead on a new bipartisan bill that would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to research how medicinal cannabis could help ailing veterans.

The bill will allow the VA secretary to "conduct and support research relating to the efficacy and safety of forms of cannabis … on the health outcomes of covered veterans diagnosed with chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions."

Marijuana is legal in Alaska for both medical and recreational purposes. But it remains illegal under federal law as a Schedule 1 narcotic — one with no accepted medical use. There is disagreement now about whether the law allows research.

The bill "clarifies … that research on medical marijuana is within the VA authority," Sullivan said.

He pointed to evidence presented in reports and at congressional committee hearings that suggests the ease with which vets have obtained opioids has fueled the nation's addiction problems. Many hope that marijuana can help with managing stress from war trauma and other problems, functioning as an alternative to opioids, Sullivan said.

Without study, it is unclear how cannabis can help various ailments, Sullivan said. 

The VA has an office of research and development that works with universities, other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and private industry. The office has four programs: biomedical laboratory research, clinical science research, health services research and rehabilitation research.

Anecdotal reports and early studies indicate that cannabis can help those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, but there is no research done by the VA on specifically how it can help American veterans — what form of cannabis, what doses or what health problems, according to the VA and others.

The bill requires the VA secretary to develop a plan to study cannabis and submit it to Congress within six months, and that the VA submit periodic reports to House and Senate committees for the next five years.

It requires study into "full plants and extracts," including at least three strains of cannabis with varying traits and chemical composition, and "varying methods of cannabis delivery, including topical application, combustible and non-combustible inhalation, and ingestion."

"This does just what it does. It doesn't say, OK, therefore vets are going to be legally allowed" cannabis products, Sullivan said. Nevertheless, medical marijuana has been legal in Alaska since 1998, and is currently legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, Sullivan noted.

"I meet with our vets all the time back home and I don't have to tell you how important that community is to Alaskans," Sullivan said. "I get asked about it a lot. I get asked about it in town halls, and I think this is a reasonable first step," he said.

Sullivan is the co-sponsor on the bill introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. Both are members of the Veterans Affairs committee — Tester is the highest-ranking Democrat.

Alaska Congressman Don Young is a co-sponsor of an identical bill introduced last month, called the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018. The House bill was similarly sponsored by Republican and a Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The move toward research would follow the current trend at the VA. In December, the VA issued new guidelines saying that patients should feel free to discuss marijuana use with their patients in states where it is legal, according to Task & Purpose, a military news website.

Nevertheless, then-VA Secretary David Shulkin said one year ago that until federal law changes, VA doctors cannot prescribe medical marijuana. And currently, the VA does not have the authority to study marijuana, Shulkin told a House member in a December letter.