The District of Columbia and 10 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use; 33 states, including Minnesota, have legalized medical marijuana. Yet, under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it is a crime to use or possess it, even for medical purposes. This dichotomy can create some difficult situations for federal law enforcement.
Closer to home, it recently impacted the Veterans Treatment Court, over which I preside in Duluth.
Federal agencies must follow federal law, which means the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs cannot prescribe medical marijuana. However, the VA cannot deny treatment or benefits for individuals using medical marijuana. This means that veterans whose sole source of medical care is through the VA would not have medical marijuana as an option while a veteran who could afford the associated out-of-pocket expense would. Treatment courts receiving federal grant dollars, like the veterans court in Duluth, must not allow its use regardless of state law to the contrary. We also have to test our veterans for controlled substances, including marijuana.
Medical marijuana’s effectiveness in treating symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury — such as anxiety, hypervigilance, and sleeplessness — is the subject of considerable debate. These ailments are common among veterans of our ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an increasing number of these veterans are self-medicating with marijuana to alleviate their symptoms.
The VA website includes an article that states the benefits of medical marijuana are largely anecdotal, and there have been no studies with randomized controlled trials to prove its efficacy. Moreover, individuals with post-traumatic stress might be more susceptible to marijuana addiction, which could make things worse instead of better.
However, medical marijuana has been approved for post-traumatic stress in several states, including Minnesota, and petitions have been filed seeking approval to use it for treating anxiety and traumatic brain injury as well. Veterans groups like the DAV have called for additional VA research into the potential benefits of medical marijuana for service-connected disabled veterans, noting encouraging results from preliminary research. (See “Marijuana’s Promising Moment” by Matt Saintsing at dav.org/learn-more/news/2019/marijuanas-promising-moment/.)
In our Veterans Treatment Court, this controversy puts us squarely between a rock and a hard place. If a veteran gets approved by a civilian doctor to treat his or her condition with medical marijuana, our team either has to tell them to go against the doctor’s advice or risk losing the grant funding that currently allows us to operate. The first option is extremely distasteful; the second is a non-starter.
I am not arguing for marijuana legalization. That is a medical or policy decision, not a judicial one. But the divide between state and federal law makes it harder to get the veterans in our treatment court the help they need. We need more research into whether medical marijuana is a safe and effective treatment — and some way to bridge the gap between state and federal law that will keep judges from getting between doctors and their patients.
Dale Harris of Duluth is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District. The article on the anecdotal benefits of medical marijuana referenced in this column is at https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/cooccurring/marijuana_ptsd_vets.asp.