THUMBS DOWN to a report about the Department of Veterans Affairs showing that even initiatives with the best intentions have unintended consequences.

New federal rules regarding opiod painkillers require all patients receiving the drugs to return to their doctor every month to renew their medications. The rules were enacted to curb the overprescribing of painkillers that has led to what the CDC calls “the worst drug addiction epidemic in the country’s history.”

Unfortunately, the rules also are keeping veterans, many with painful, disabling injuries from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from getting the medication they have come to depend on. Veterans who live far from a VA clinic or who have trouble getting an appointment in the backlogged system are finding it difficult to acquire the refills every month.

The VA is right to move away from the overuse of painkillers, which can be a poor long-term solution to pain management. The department is indeed looking for other solutions as part of a $21.7 million initiative with the National Institute of Health.

But the new federal rules inadvertently have caused that changeover to happen too quickly, leaving veterans feeling abandoned by a VA health system that until the rule changes embraced the heavy use of opiod pain medication.

“Suddenly, the VA treats people on pain meds like the new lepers,” said the wife of one vet suffering from a multitude of injuries as a result of a roadside bomb near Baghdad. “It feels like they told us for years to take these drugs, didn’t offer us any other ideas, and now we’re suddenly demonized, second-class citizens.”

The VA said it is working with veterans on the change in policy. But the adjustments are coming far too slow, which should sound familiar to those who have watched the VA health system struggle to respond following last year’s revelations of patient backlogs and coverups.

THUMBS UP to continued legislative efforts to seed a hemp industry here in Maine.

Hemp is a valuable, versatile crop used in everything from construction materials, textiles and fuel to, increasingly, nutritional supplements and body care products. It is highly profitable for farmers in other countries, including Canada, but its commercial production has been banned in the United States for decades.

Attitudes toward the plant, a close cousin to marijuana but with none of the psychoactive elements, are slowly changing in the United States. The federal government still considers it a drug, but there are indications that that view is loosening. In addition, 19 states, including Maine, have enacted policies allowing for hemp research and pilot projects for industrial cultivation.

In 2009, Maine passed a law opening the way for the commercial cultivation of hemp as soon as it becomes legal federally. The latest federal farm bill allows hemp to be grown for agricultural or academic research.

Last year, Maine lawmakers passed a bill to set up a process for licensing growers, but it ultimately failed when funding could not be found. A bill in play this session, one of two related to hemp cultivation, uses licensing fees to cover that cost.

The bill wouldn’t clear all the hurdles related to hemp cultivation. The federal government’s stance on the plant still would hamper the growth of the industry.

But it behooves Maine to set the groundwork for what could be a profitable industry for Maine farmers. Passing these laws also sends a message to the federal government that its hemp policy is out of date, and that there are farmers ready to take advantage once the rules are loosened.

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