Veterans fighting for medical marijuana access, even in states where it’s already legal

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Veterans are struggling to access medical marijuana, even in states where it’s already legal. 

Meanwhile, bipartisan proposals to change that are stalled in Congress, including one from U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

After 21 years of service and a life-altering plane accident, retired Air Force Special Operations Pilot Doug Distaso left the military addicted to painkillers. 

“I fell asleep opening Christmas day gifts with my kids. That was rock bottom,” Distaso said. 

Distaso turned his life around after switching to cannabis to cope with chronic pain and PTSD. Now, he advocates for marijuana access as the executive director of Veterans Cannabis Project.

“If your choice is between opioids and a plant-based medicine it’s a really easy decision for a lot of us,” Distaso said. “For the sacrifices this community has made, it is not a sacrifice at all to give them access to plant-based medicine.” 

Thirty-six states, including Virginia, already have established medical cannabis programs. Yet even in those states, doctors at VA Medical Centers are prohibited from prescribing it. 

Sen. Kaine is trying to change that by expanding eligibility in VA hospitals. 

“I think we ought to trust the doctors to prescribe what they think is in the patient’s best interest and the VA should be able to do that,” Kaine said. 

Kaine’s bill would also create a temporary five-year safe harbor protection for veterans who use medical marijuana, as well as direct the VA to study how cannabis could help veterans manage chronic pain and reduce opioid abuse. 

“We’re going to keep working on it and trying to get it done but we don’t yet have the votes,” Kaine said. 

Similar proposals have gotten some attention in Congress within the last week.

However, VA leadership has called a recent push for more research redundant and rejected expanded eligibility in its hospitals due to ongoing federal prohibition on pot.

While recreational marijuana possession is legal in Virginia, medical dispensaries remain the only avenue for legal sales and those products are only available to patients registered with the state. Employment protections are also only available to registered medical patients, except those whose jobs involve federal contracts or the defense industrial base sector.

Elevate Holistics CEO Stephen Stearman helps connect medical patients with doctors and dispensaries in various states. While veterans can seek out providers outside of the VA to obtain medical cards, Stearman said those in rural areas may not have a doctor certified to prescribe near them. Plus, he said many fear negative repercussions.

“The biggest concern is the uncertainty around what happens with my current physician relationship, my current benefits with the VA and my pain management plan if I go out and get medical cannabis,” Stearman said. “It’s a legal grey area.”

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