More than 90 percent of veterans support expanding research into medical marijuana and over 80 percent back allowing federal doctors to prescribe it to veterans, according to a new study released by the American Legion on Thursday.
Group members called it “a landslide” in favor of their push to ease restrictions on testing the drug for a variety of ailments as a potentially safer alternative to more commonly used opioids.
“You can’t change a policy just based on anecdotal evidence,” said Lou Celli, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. “But there is enough evidence that at least warrants looking further into medical cannabis.”
The poll — conducted by the firm Five Corners Strategies in October — indicates even higher levels of support for medical marijuana than among the general public. A Yahoo/Marist poll released in April found that 83 percent of Americans believe doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana to patients to help with pain management.
The Legion’s new poll comes after a year of lobbying by the veterans service organization on the issue, and a week after Democrats on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee petitioned Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to use his department’s Office of Research and Development to better explore the value of cannabis medication.
Supporters have touted the drug as less dangerous than prescription opioids, which have been the target of White House public health efforts in recent weeks. But VA and Department of Justice officials in recent months have shown little interest in relaxing rules governing cannabis testing.
“Not only does this have the potential to help veterans, but it could have make headway in the country’s epidemic of opioid addiction,” Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calf., said at a press conference unveiling the poll details.
American Legion officials said they are not interested in legalizing marijuana for recreational use but are strong believers that all medicinal help for veterans should be considered.
They said the poll results showed strong support for expanded testing across age groups, political affiliation and geographic factors.
At Thursday’s event, several veterans and family members spoke about the benefits they have seen from the alternative drug. Josh Frey, a Marine Purple Heart recipient injured in Iraq in 2004, said switching from a cocktail of prescription medications to medical marijuana changed his life.
“Before, I couldn’t get up here and speak,” he said. “I couldn’t get on a plane. I couldn’t take my kids to school.”
“I was the walking dead, and now I’m not,” he added.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said he has heard countless similar stories. Earlier this year, he introduced legislation to allow expanded testing, but so far, the measure has remained stalled in committee. He said he is hopeful the issue can move ahead before the end of the year.
“The federal government has lied for a generation in saying that cannabis has no medicinal value,” he said.
He and other advocates hope the new Legion findings can push the debate ahead. Veterans Cannabis Project Executive Director Nick Etten said the new poll data shows that “to be pro-cannabis is to be pro-veteran,” and that Congress needs to respond.
“It’s time that both Congress and the administration move beyond bad science and failed policy to solve the veteran health crisis,” he said. “Medical marijuana is that silver bullet, and veterans understand that.”
Full details of the poll are available on the American Legion’s website.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.