For the first time ever in the United States, researchers are working to explore the therapeutic effects of marijuana on those people suffering from post–traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, reports show the study is at risk of being shut down simply because the Department of Veterans Affairs is refusing to lend a helping hand.
After seven years of work, and repeated struggles with the government’s lack of cannabis expertise, Arizona-based researcher Dr. Sue Sisley and her team are on the verge of completing research on 22 veterans qualified for the first phase of the study. But in order to take the federally funded investigation to the next level, researchers need to recruit an additional 54 participations - a process that requires the screening of thousands more veterans.
It would make sense for researchers to lean on the local VA for some assistance in the recruitment department. Yet, a letter from Dr. Sisley to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin indicates that the Phoenix VA hospital has “been unwilling to assist by providing information to their patients and medical staff about a federally legal clinical trial happening right in their backyard that is of crucial importance to the veteran community."
All Sisley is asking of the hospital’s director, Rima Nelson, is for the freedom to post flyers and other advertising materials throughout the facility in hopes of generating some interest from area vets who might want to get involved with the study. She says in her letter that if more veterans do not sign up, the research teams will be forced to recruit subjects afflicted with PTSD for other reasons than wartime service, which “is a change that we do not want to make if at all possible.”
But the VA insists that the recruitment issue is not something it can legally get involved with because marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The department has advised Sisley to seek assistance from other sources.
“Federal law restricts VA’s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects,” VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour told the Military Times. “The researcher is free to work with veterans service organizations and state veterans officials who may not face such restrictions to identify candidates for her study.”
However, as Jacob Sullum from Reason Magazine pointed out in his analysis of the situation, that statement is not exactly true.
Since Sisley’s study has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, VA assistance in this matter is perfectly legal – both at the state and federal level, Sullum said.
The real snag, according to Paul Coupaud, director of communication at the Phoenix V.A. is “we cannot advertise any research study other than what V.A. is doing; we can't advertise outside research."
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin does, in fact, have the power to bend the rules. Whether he will intervene has yet to be determined.
Earlier this year, Shulkin said, “there may be some evidence” that marijuana could help veterans. “And we're interested in looking at that and learning from that” … But not “until the time that federal law changes,” he added.
Dr. Sisley says that if more participants are not enrolled in the study by the beginning of October, her crew will be forced to conclude its research and reassess how to proceed.
“It was a seven-year saga with federal regulations just to get the study to this point,” she said. “I don’t want to see that lost.”