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Cannabis commission considers new rules around veterans and pot

Matthew Medsger

June 11, 2023 at 7:28 p.m.

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The State’s Cannabis Control Commission will consider removing registration fees for veterans using the medical marijuana program in order expand the use of a drug many say is far safer than the opioids veterans are frequently prescribed to manage pain.

During its regular meeting last week, Commissioners learned that, though the state is home to hundreds of thousands of veterans, many of whom would qualify for medical marijuana as a result of service connected disabilities, veterans are not entering the medical marijuana program at nearly the same rates as other adults.

Part of the problem is the law.

“Access to medical marijuana in the regulated industry for veterans in Massachusetts continue to face significant barriers primarily due to the existing federal illegality of cannabis,” commissioners were shown during a presentation by Commissioner Bruce Stebbins.

For the 71,000 Massachusetts veterans using a Veterans Administration facility for healthcare or the 11,000 who are 100% disabled as a result of their service, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, making it inaccessible through the VA. That means veterans cannot get a recommendation from their doctors to get a medical marijuana card or even ask their doctors for advice about use of marijuana.

“I believe that federal prohibition of cannabis has had a chilling effect on our veterans ability to seek treatment here in Massachusetts and perhaps even to pursue employment in the cannabis industry,” Stebbins said. “This is really a question of access and equity for our veterans.”

Another part of the problem is the cost of certification. Medical marijuana cards are issued on a yearly basis with an annual cost for both licensing and processing. That additional expense, on top of the cost of the cannabis itself, can be too much for a veteran on a fixed disability income to add to their already steep health costs.

Commissioners indicated, as a possible statement of policy, that they will support expanding the definition of “qualifying patient” to include veterans using the VA for healthcare who can furnish documentation demonstrating the federal department has diagnosed the veteran with a condition which would normally qualify them for the program.

The commission could also support changing their list of qualifying “debilitating conditions” to include PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and opioid addiction. Too many veterans, commissioners learned, are turning to more dangerous or addictive drugs because they simply have no alternative.

“Veterans are more susceptible to opioid addiction as they are more likely to suffer from chronic pain. In addition, many veterans suffer from mental health problems like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, making them more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self medicate,” Commissioner Kimberly Roy said.

Mortality rates from drug overdoses among the veteran population have increased by more than 50% in the last decade, Roy told her colleagues, but it’s a problem that the commission is in a unique position to help solve, she said.

“Addressing drug overdose in the veteran population requires accessible and non-judgmental, low threshold, wraparound, and holistic solutions that recognize the complex etiology of overdose risk for veterans,” she said.

While marijuana is legal for adult use in Massachusetts — with or without a medical recommendation — it remains a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance under federal law alongside drugs like heroin or LSD. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Schedule 1 drugs “are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”


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