Veterans Groups Push Congress To Take Action On Psychedelic Therapy And Medical Marijuana

During joint U.S. House and Senate committee meetings this week, veterans service organizations (VSOs) pressed members of Congress to more urgently pursue the potential benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy and medical marijuana.

The requests from groups like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Disabled American Veterans and the Wounded Warrior Project come on the heels of organizations at last year’s set of annual VSO hearings criticizing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for “dragging their feet” on medical marijuana research.

“Whether it’s cannabis or psychedelics,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) in testimony to the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees, “the data makes clear that our generation of veterans is ready to try more alternative therapies. We just need our elected leaders to help make it possible.”

For the first time in an annual survey of members, the group said, veterans were recently asked whether they supported expanded access “to psychedelic treatment options within the VA, and 65% of them told us they did. Only 12% told us they were opposed.”

Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. (VFW), meanwhile, said it wants to see “more done with medical cannabis and other alternative therapies.”

“Medical cannabis is prescribed in thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C., and research has shown positive outcomes,” VFW Commander-in-Chief Duane Sarmiento said in testimony for Wednesday’s hearing, also noting that VA will soon begin researching both MDMA and psilocybin to treat PTSD and depression.

“Traditional therapy models have limitations, and we believe non-traditional options should always be considered to help treat veteran issues,” Sarmiento continued. “We eagerly await the results of these studies and are hopeful they show positive effects that mirror the anecdotal stories we have heard about these treatment modalities.”

In January, VA issued a request for applications to conduct in-depth research on the use of psychedelics to treat PTSD and depression, marking a milestone for the department.

Wounded Warrior Project in testimony this week said that development “is unquestionably positive, the field still has fundamental questions to answer.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, the organization’s CEO, said, for example, that demand for MDMA therapy could quickly outpace capacity at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were to approve psychedelics to treat mental health issues.

“It is understood that VHA will not be able to absorb the demand for MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD once it is approved by the FDA,” Linnington wrote. “While several VA locations are primed to provide this modality of treatment on a limited basis—as potential psychedelic treatment centers—we know the need for treatment has the potential to overwhelm the system, further straining capacity.”

VSOs also urged policymakers to confront practical questions about how to implement psychedelic-assisted therapy among large numbers of veterans.

“We should also strive to understand how to best incorporate MDMA-assisted therapy into the culture care delivery model and how to scale treatment to meet large numbers of veterans who need PTSD treatment,” Linnington at Wounded Warrior Project said. “The long-term impact of MDMA-assisted therapy and the need for tailored follow-on care are also natural areas to explore.”

Linnington also emphasized the need to differentiate between various types of psychedelic-assisted therapy and their possible benefits and limitations.

“We stress the need to work with the manufacturing community, clinical providers, and the VSO community to ensure that veterans have access to clear and reliable information as other ‘psychedelic’ drugs and therapies come to the treatment market,” he said. “While we have discussed MDMA here, dozens of companies are developing drugs using psilocybin, LSD, ibogaine, and other substances and are progressing through various stages of development. Broad discussion of psychedelic assisted therapy should be careful to differentiate these various products and their myriad health impacts and delivery methods.”

During the second day of VSO hearings, on Thursday, lawmakers heard from Nancy G. Espinosa, national commander for Disabled American Veterans, which counts more than a million members.

In her testimony, Espinosa listed support of VA research “into the medical efficacy of cannabis for treatment of service-connected disabled veterans” as among the organization’s priorities around medical and mental health care.

At third day of hearings scheduled for March 13, lawmakers will hear from the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America,Military Officers Association of America and other VSOs.

Veterans organizations have long helped lead the way on state and federal drug reform, especially around medical marijuana and psychedelic-assisted therapy. In large part that’s due to the comparatively high rates of mental health disorders and suicidal ideation among veterans, which advocates say alternative therapies can help address.

Currently, there are no psychedelic drugs that are federally approved to prescribe as medicine. But that could soon change, as FDA recently agreed to review a new drug application for MDMA-assisted therapy on an expedited basis.

FDA has previously designated both MDMA and psilocybin as breakthrough therapies for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment-resistant depression, respectively.

Calls for broader access to medical marijuana and psychedelics through VA doctors have become a recurring issue for VSOs. Similar issues were raised during 2022’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearings, which themselves echoed issues the organizations had repeatedly brought up to lawmakers.

During congressional hearings in 2021, Minority Veterans of America drew attention to research demonstrating to the possible use of cannabis as well as psychedelics to treat conditions such as PTSD and substance use disorders.

“We believe it is necessary to include cannabis and psychedelics in the [Veterans Health Administration’s] psychopharmacological repertoire,” the group said.

Specifics have ranged in scope among the various groups, but the overall message has been clear: Military veterans stand to uniquely benefit from marijuana treatment, and it’s time for Congress to do something about it.

Concrete steps to expand access have been slow, but some in Congress appear to be getting the message. In November, the meeting of a House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health marked the first-ever congressional hearing focused on psychedelic-assisted therapy for veterans.

Last month, Rep. Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) filed federal legislation that would direct VA’s chief to notify lawmakers if the agency adds a psychedelic drug to its formulary of covered prescription medicines.

Van Orden has also co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to provide funding to the Department of Defense (DOD) to conduct clinical trials into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelics for active duty military members. That reform was signed into law by President Joe Biden under an amendment attached to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

In October, VA also launched a new podcast about the future of veteran health care, and the first episode of the series focuses on the healing potential of psychedelics.

Meanwhile, FDA recently joined scientists at a public meeting on next steps for conducting research to develop psychedelic medicines.

That came months after FDA issued historic draft guidance on psychedelics studies, providing scientists with a framework to carry out research that could lead to the development of novel medicines.

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Image element courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.

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