Bismarck, ND – Veterans in North Dakota can now get medical marijuana, without a doctor’s recommendation.

The VA cannot recommend the drug since it is still illegal at the federal level. But with a growing belief in its benefits for our veterans, North Dakota has found a way to work around it.

About 4 million naval veterans are still alive today. Jim Nelson is one of them. He served during Vietnam but says he is still battling.

“A lot of us, myself included, have agent orange so basically we’re still fighting our war,” Nelson said.

Today, he still fights for veterans’ needs, working with AMVETS and the North Dakota Veterans Legislative Council. But one thing he is not sold on yet is medical marijuana.

“I guess I’m kind of neutral. I’d like to see some more evidence on it,” he said.

But he’s curious about it for one main reason.

“It’s basically a huge need. Words don’t describe how I feel how big the problem is,” he said. 

He is referring to opioid abuse among veterans. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was one of the first qualifying conditions added to North Dakota’s medical marijuana list.

The VA estimates that 30% of Vietnam veterans have experienced PTSD as well as 12% of Gulf War veterans and as many as 20% of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A large portion of PTSD patients also suffers from other substance abuse disorders.
According to a study of VA data, the number of veterans diagnosed with Opioid Use Disorder by the VA nearly tripled from 2003 to 2017.

“There’s a lot of issues that veterans are coming home with and as a veteran myself, I feel if there is any need that they have, we should try and address that,” state Senator David Clemens (R-District 16) said.

Clemens, like Nelson, is hesitant to say he supports medical marijuana.

“I’ve been a little cautious,” he said. But he has supported some parts of the new law, like helping veterans gain access to the drug.

“If they qualify for the condition that they bring forward, then I feel they should have that opportunity as well as anyone else in this society,” Clemens said.

Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, VA doctors cannot recommend it. However, state lawmakers have found a way around that.

A large number of veterans want the drug. The group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, surveyed 4,600 veterans this year. 83% said cannabis should be legal for medicinal purposes. 91% are at least somewhat interested in using cannabis or cannabinoids as a treatment option.

“I’d even consider it for some of the things I’m dealing with,” Nelson said.

This legislative session, state lawmakers found a way to help. They wrote into the law that a veteran being treated by the VA can be approved for the program with medical records that prove a qualifying diagnosis and proper military discharge documents. That would replace a doctor’s recommendation.

That will have Nelson watching closely.

“My interest would really be steeped if they found that it did actually do to PTSD and stuff like that because then it would get rid of the opioids,” he said.

He says it is something that could limit casualties in the battles they are fighting once they return home.

There are a couple of bills in Congress that would allow VA doctors to recommend marijuana to patients in state’s where it is already legal. We reached out to our North Dakota Senators.

Senator Kevin Cramer’s office said he is in support of the STATES Act, which would allow states to come up with their own policies regarding the drug.

Senator Hoeven’s office said he has voted in committee for legislation that would allow VA providers to discuss and recommend medicinal marijuana in states where it is legal.