Disabled Veterans Press For Access To Medical Marijuana

After lawmakers ran out of time to fully consider the idea last session, the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy on Tuesday revived its consideration of legislation that seeks to make medical marijuana more accessible to disabled veterans.

Testifying in favor once again was Stephen Mandile, an Army veteran, Uxbridge selectman and longtime medical marijuana advocate who said he used cannabis to end a decade of addiction to opioids prescribed to treat pain from injuries he sustained in Iraq in 2005. A string of other veterans and cannabis activists also touted the bill at Tuesday's hearing.

The bill (H 179 / S 70) filed by Rep. Michael Soter and Sen. Ryan Fattman would essentially expand the current eligibility criteria for medical marijuana and also create a way that disabled veterans who receive their health care at a federal Veterans Administration facility — and whose doctors therefore cannot legally recommend a medical marijuana prescription — could become eligible.

While anyone 21 or older can buy non-medical marijuana in Massachusetts, registered medical marijuana patients do not have to pay the effective 20 percent tax that is levied on non-medical sales, have access to higher THC dosages for edible products, and can receive discounts from retailers and dispensaries.

Under Soter's bill, veterans who get their care at the VA could be considered qualifying patients under the state's medical marijuana law without receiving a diagnosis from a registered physician if they provide their Veterans Administration award letter "indicating an existing disability" to the Cannabis Control Commission. Soter said Illinois and North Dakota already accept VA paperwork in lieu of a doctor's recommendation.

"The intent of this bill is to allow veterans to submit their Veterans Health Administration paperwork, which confirms having a qualifying condition, [and] removing out-of-pocket costs that veterans are required to spend in order to get a medical card, which is reported as the third-greatest barrier reported by veteran respondents behind cost and access to the right products," Mandile told the committee.

Soter's bill would add post-traumatic stress disorder and opioid use disorder to the list of debilitating medical conditions that make someone, veteran or not, eligible to be a medical marijuana patient.

"Currently, Massachusetts is the only state in New England without post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition. New Mexico was the first state to specifically list PTSD as a qualifying condition in 2009 and, since then, over 25 states have included PTSD as a qualifying condition," the representative told the committee Tuesday.

Soter's bill got a hearing before the Cannabis Policy Committee last session, in the weeks just before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the Legislature's work. Senate Chair Sonia Chang-Diaz said the committee ran out of time to fully vet the idea last session but heard concerns about separating treatment using medical marijuana from a health care provider.

"One of the push-backs that we heard when asking for input from different stakeholders on this legislation was the fear of veteran patients who are suffering from PTSD or other potential maladies for which cannabis might be an appropriate treatment, separating them from the medical attention and counseling that ... a non-veteran medical patient would normally have with their primary care provider," she said. Chang-Diaz added, "That was the concern about this. If you're getting your care at the VA, but the VA is not allowed to participate in sort of structuring the care plan around use of cannabis."

Mandile told Chang-Diaz that his VA doctor is aware of and approves of his cannabis use and "would rather me have that than the fentanyl that they can offer me."

"They are allowed and encouraged to discuss these things and work on an individual basis ... with each patient in making sure that they know that they're not going to lose benefits for being registered in their state marijuana program and help them get as close as they can to where they want to be without having to sign paperwork," he said, citing a VHA directive.


More from WBUR

Listen Live