Q&A: Is the New Mexico VA Hobbling Cannabis Research?

Does cannabis have some potential to help veterans with PTSD? It’s an open and scientifically intriguing question, one that would seem to be worth multiple studies. 

But, last year the New Mexico VA, a state branch of the US Department of Veterans Affairs, blocked a university researcher from putting up flyers for his medical cannabis study at one of its facilities—Raymond G. Murphy Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center—in Albuquerque. In August 2018, Jacob Vigil, the director of the Medical Cannabis Research Fund at the University of New Mexico, was trying to recruit veterans for his study on the association between cannabis use and health and well-being among New Mexico veterans. Vigil is an associate professor in the psychology department at the university.

But his request was rejected two months later. The New Mexico VA’s Research and Development Committee claimed that Vigil’s study would “include the same subject population and therefore competes with enrollment” for other “current VA research activities.” And thus, per federal guidelines, the posting was not approved. “This decision is final,” the notice to Vigil said. 

A guidance on advertisement of non-VA research activities at VA facilities released in 2015—which New Mexico VA’s Research and Development Committee referred to in its notice to Vigil—states that research has to be “relevant to Veterans and the mission of VA” and should not “impede current VA research activities.” New Mexico VA did not respond to Cannabis Wire’s questions about which VA research studies would compete with Vigil’s research for enrollment.   

Vigil does not believe that the New Mexico VA’s logic holds water, partly because there are so many potential study subjects. About half of the patients at the center who were exposed to combat are cannabis users, according to Vigil, and about 20% of all veterans at the center have a diagnosis of PTSD. Vigil said he based those estimates on his interactions with veterans but suspects the rate could be higher. And New Mexico has more than 76,000 veterans enrolled in the VA healthcare system as of 2017. It therefore makes no sense that his study could truly compete for subjects with VA’s ongoing research, according to Vigil. 

However, New Mexico VA provided different reasoning for why Vigil’s request might have been rejected when Cannabis Wire reached out to them. Since cannabis is still a Schedule I drug, VA’s ability to conduct and support medical cannabis research is limited, said Paula Aragon, Public Affairs Officer at the Raymond G. Murphy Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, New Mexico. Any research has to be done with the support of other federal entities such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and others. 

“The researcher is free to work with veterans service organizations and state veterans officials who may not face such restrictions to identify candidates for the study,” Aragon told Cannabis Wire. New Mexico VA did not address questions on why Vigil was given another explanation for the rejection of his request to put up flyers. 

The US Department of Veterans Affairs recently voiced its opposition to four bills that would expand medical cannabis access to veterans at a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing. (Read Cannabis Wire’s coverage of the hearing here.) 

Cannabis Wire followed up with Vigil to learn more. This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Nikitha Sattiraju, Cannabis Wire: Can you walk me through what happened at the New Mexico VA clinic when you tried to put up flyers for your study? 

Jacob Vigil, Medical Cannabis Research Fund: I was handing out flyers. Patients were talking about it [the study] with their VA healthcare providers, and some of the providers were posting the flyers behind the scenes. But eventually, one of the supervisors pushed it up the chain and somebody contacted me and requested that I complete an application so that I could officially post the flyers. So I sent New Mexico VA a whole bunch of materials. That took about two months. And that’s where it ended formally. 

CW: What was the VA clinic’s response to your request to put up flyers?

Vigil: It is strange. Everybody recognizes that this work is vital. But VA’s counselors, providers, and so forth have been explicitly condemned for advocating that patients use cannabis. I have heard from numerous patients, nearly every single one of them (whether currently using cannabis or not) that they have discussed its use with their VA providers. Most tell me they learn instantly that they will not be supported, with many providers describing the forms that they were forced to sign and training that prohibited their advocation of cannabis use as part of an institutional mission.

I do know that their ongoing studies are negative. I heard about their study showing that cannabis users do worse in traditional therapies than nonusers from two patients. I think the point of the study was to show that cannabis impairs rehabilitation of PTSD. 

CW: Can you explain what your study is about? 

Vigil: It basically compares vets that use cannabis against vets that don’t use cannabis, in terms of daily health behaviors and psychological functioning. We’re measuring their daily alcohol intake, nutrition, and nightmares and other symptoms around anxiety and PTSD. And then also the cannabis users are using this app—Releaf app—to basically document and record patterns in their cannabis use, so we’re hoping to extract some information in terms of how they’re dosing, what they’re using, and the effects of those choices. 

CW: How do you recruit volunteers for your study now?

Vigil: I’ve stood on street corners trying to hand out flyers to people going in and out of the VA. I attend public events. I spend so much time trying to recruit for the study. It’s taken up a huge chunk of my life, this project. But it is worth it. It’s one of the most important projects I’ve ever done. I know that our results will directly apply to a lot of people who are currently in desperate need to reduce their pharmaceutical burden, increase their health and mood, and gain any bit of relief from the trauma and suffering they deal with every day. Our results will likely influence policy and I’m glad to serve as the messenger and voice for our study’s results, however the cards may fall.  

More Q&A: Is the New Mexico VA Hobbling Cannabis Research?