President Joe Biden’s nominee for the VA undersecretary of health, Shereef Elnahal, will be responsible for leading a vital division of the VA that has until now prevented VA doctors from issuing medical cannabis recommendations to military veterans.
The undersecretary position at the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been filled by Shereef Elnahal. The senate voted and confirmed Shereef Elnahal would be sworn in at the end of July 2022. Elnahal helped oversee and expand New Jersey’s medical marijuana program and continues to advocate for federal legalization.
Shereef Elnahal is known for his work in improving and regulating New Jersey’s medical cannabis program as New Jersey’s state health commissioner from 2018-2019. As an advocate for federal legalization, Elnahal has stated that he believes federal prohibitions on cannabis and medical marijuana must end.
Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) mentioned Shereef Elnahal’s cannabis regulatory background and expressed frustrations with the VA’s consistent opposition to the legislation that would promote clinical research into the therapeutic potential of cannabis for conditions that commonly afflict the veteran population, such as PTSD.
Once appointed, Elnahal stated that when serving as New Jersey’s health commissioner, he ran the medical marijuana program, expanded access to the medical program across the state, and made it easier for veterans to enroll.
Shereef Elnahal’s Time As The NJ Health Commissioner
In 2018, during his time as the New Jersey Health Commissioner, Elnahal spoke about the recalcitrance of the medical community to embrace medical marijuana as a legitimate medicine with therapeutic benefits. Elnahal argued that the stigma that has built up over time surrounding cannabis due to its recreational use had produced false narratives surrounding the herb.
When speaking about the stigma surrounding the herb, Elnahal said, “Of course, it’s been used illegally for recreational reasons. However, cannabis has a lot of therapeutic benefits.”
“The side effect profile, in particular, the risk for dependence, overdose, addiction, and death are much lower and nonexistent for marijuana versus opioids. The other thing is we’re not necessarily recommending marijuana as first-line therapy, we’re just allowing you not to recommend it as first-line therapy. It’s still clinical judgment.” Elnahal continued.
Cannabis advocates were encouraged by the work of Elnahal and other New Jersey regulators. During this time, Elnahal and the other New Jersey regulators expanded the state’s medical cannabis program, which significantly increased the number of registered patients during his tenure. Elnahal also recognized the need to do more to make it easier for patients to access affordable products, especially in a state that doesn’t allow home cultivation of the plant.
In 2018, Elnahal told the Insider NJ that the public pressure his office faced over access barriers held his office accountable to ensure they were not losing perspective on how patients felt. He also mentioned during the interview that while he might not prefer receiving critical Twitter posts from people demanding faster cannabis reform, the informal feedback sometimes leads to action.
During his tenure as commissioner, Elnahal oversaw numerous medical cannabis policy changes enacted in New Jersey. Some of these policy changes included adding new qualifying conditions, lowering fees when registering as a medical cannabis patient, allowing patients to have additional primary caregivers, repealing a strain limit, and approving additional forms of medicine.
In 2018, when Elnahal heard the news of a growing number of patients enrolling in New Jersey’s medical cannabis system, he stated, “we are building a compassionate, consumer-friendly program.”
He further stated, “even though our work is far from done, more physicians should look to medicinal marijuana as a safe and effective treatment option.”
Elnahal believes that medical marijuana as a treatment option can help improve patients’ well-being and combat the opioid crisis.
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