Between 2010 and 2019, 42,627 U.S. veterans died of a drug overdose. In fact, military veterans are 1.5 to 2 times as likely to die of an accidental overdose than the general population. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has taken some laudable steps to address opioid use in recent years, including expanding access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone and medications to treat opioid use disorder. But we can do more. Decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level would provide another tool to lessen the harms associated with opioids while reducing the potential risks associated with overcriminalization.

Military service puts veterans at increased risk for a range of physical and psychological ailments, from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia. These factors can contribute to veterans’ higher rates of opioid misuse and opioid use disorder, and their subsequent risk for opioid-related overdose. While we still have much to learn about the risks and benefits of medical cannabis use, one thing is clear: Though not a risk-free panacea, it is far less dangerous than opioids.

In fact, physicians note that, while overconsumption of cannabis can lead to a number of unpleasant effects, it is not lifethreateningResearch suggests that access to a legal, regulated medical cannabis market may even lead to fewer opioid deaths. Yet, because weed remains federally illegal, veterans accessing this lower-risk alternative face a range of unintended consequences, such as job loss for medically prescribed cannabis use.

Even though medical cannabis is now legal in 37 states and Washington, D.C., the drug’s federal Schedule I status — defined as having high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use — creates its own set of problems. Card-carrying patients not only risk losing jobs or federal benefits, they may find it affects their medical care. The VA claims it won’t penalize veterans for using pot, but its clinicians are still prohibited from recommending it; and some veterans who use medical cannabis report experiencing stigma from their VA providers. In addition, because the VA doesn’t pay for medical cannabis, veterans report that cost is a significant barrier. And although weed’s potential as a therapeutic or risk-reducing tool is promising, our knowledge about its medicinal potential and side effects remains limited due to research restrictions.

Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. adults are military veterans, but they’re an important part of the cannabis decriminalization conversation. Veterans consume medical cannabis at higher rates than the general population, often as a reduced-risk alternative to opioids. And a growing number are curious to try the plant or its derivatives, and want safer, less stigmatized access. Indeed, a recent survey of individuals who served in Iraq and Afghanistan found that 71 percent expressed at least some interest in using cannabinoids for their own medical needs; 84 percent supported legal medical consumption; and 88 percent thought pot’s medicinal properties should be studied. It’s time we listened.

In order to maximize benefits to veterans, decriminalization policy must do more than remove cannabis’ Schedule I status. Efforts should provide a model for how federal standards may guide state regulation to improve product consistency across state lines; encourage enhanced cannabis research agendas; and ensure state-legal medical cannabis patients are not penalized in federal job searches or access to benefits. Such an approach will open the door for states to build more robust regulated medical cannabis markets, reduce the risks for unintended consequences to patients and provide new avenues for quality research on the very products people can access.

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