Growing Acceptance of Medical Cannabis for Veterans, But Many Still in ‘Exile’
As evidence mounts for the efficacy of cannabis in treating PTSD, medical marijuana is fast being normalized in the veterans’ community. But the federal Department of Veterans Affairs is only beginning to demonstrate any tolerance on the question.
This Veterans Day has occasioned a slew of media coverage for the efforts of military vets to secure cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome and other wounds of war. Some of the news shows fast-growing acceptance of use of medical marijuana by veterans. But there is much intransigence to be overcome — at both the state and federal level.
‘Cannabis Refugees’ — From Indiana
Vietnam-era veteran Terry Moore last month returned to his native Indiana from neighboring Illinois to participate in hearings at the statehouse in Indianapolis on whether the Hoosier state should adopt a medical marijuana law. He now divides his time between his home state and Illinois to partake in the latter’s medical marijuana program to treat his PTSD. Vets such as himself are “cannabis refugees,” he said in an interview with Indianapolis’ CBS4. “I’m in exile. I want to come home. I remember during Vietnam all the things about welcoming home veterans. I’m not welcome home now and I gave my whole life to this state.”
In Illinois, more than 3,400 veterans have been approved for a medical marijuana registry card, state officials told CBS4. Among those is Shay Westhoff, who was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge and Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan before a shattered neck forced him to retire after more than 15 years of service.
Westhoff said doctors prescribed him a cocktail of prescription drugs before he was finally approved for the state cannabis program. Today he works with the advocacy group Operation 1620, dedicated to promoting knowledge about use of cannabis and other natural medicines “to reduce and eradicate veteran suicide and substance/pharmaceutical dependence.”
“As far as cannabis,” Westhoff related to CBS4, “my kids are [saying] ‘Wow my dad’s back’ because I’m not taking the pills anymore. My marriage is starting to get back to where it was. I’ve been married 15 years, and it’s been a rocky nine years since I’ve been home from Afghanistan.”
Also quoted was Indiana State Rep. Jim Lucas, a Republican from the city of Seymour, who is among those pushing for a medical marijuana law in Indiana. “To me it’s unconscionable Indiana is saying thank you for your service, but we’re going to deny you,” he said. “Not only we’re going to deny you something that has proven to work in other states, we’re going to make you a criminal.”
Growing Normalization of Cannabis for Veterans
It’s hardly surprising that one of the signs of mounting acceptance was reported from San Francisco, where cannabis dispensary Bloom Room, in the SoMa district, announced it is offering eighths of its “lab-tested medical-grade cannabis” for $1 to all veterans this Veterans Day.
A very telling sign was the headline in a Military Times round-up of Veterans Day discounts: “Tall ship cruises, cannabis, workouts, burgers and more.” The story noted that Eaze, the California-based medical marijuana delivery service, is offering a 25 percent discount on cannabis products for vets with proof of service.
“Helping patients is a cornerstone of Eaze’s mission,” said Eaze CEO Jim Patterson in a press statement. “As an Air Force veteran, I’ve watched friends and colleagues struggle with war injuries and trauma. I strongly believe we should give vets and doctors as many options as possible to help them live their best lives.”
First Cracks in the Federal Intransigence
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs — still popularly known as the VA, although it hasn’t been formally called the Veterans Administration since it was elevated to a cabinet-level post in 1989 — has only recently and tentatively started to bend on the cannabis issue.
Under current policy, VA healthcare providers are prohibited from recommending that their patients use cannabis, or from helping their patients obtain cannabis treatments. However, under a policy change instated in 2010, veterans will not be denied treatment by the VA if they participate in a state-legal medical marijuana program. Under this reform, vets are also free to discuss their cannabis use with their VA healthcare provider without fear of repercussion. There have been efforts — both through legislation and litigation — to allow VA physicians themselves to prescribe or recommend medical marijuana.
The main national organization pushing for this is the Veterans Cannabis Project.
“America’s prolonged military conflicts over the past 17 years have exposed an aging and ineffective health care system, ill-prepared for the type and severity of the latest round of war-related injuries,” their website states. “Upwards of 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience post-traumatic stress or depression, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)… Veterans are often placated with “cocktails” of prescription drugs, including powerful and addictive opiates. The current arrangement is not meeting veterans’ healthcare needs. Medical cannabis is a proven, safe and common-sense personal health management option, free of the devastating side effects of opiate-based drugs… Medicinal cannabis is an incredibly effective tool for veterans challenged with managing the symptoms of their wounds.”
A recent write-up in Forbes noted efforts to pass the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act on Capitol Hill, which would empower VA physicians to issue medical marijuana recommendations in states where it is legal. The bill, sponsored by senators Bill Nelson and Brian Schatz, would also make it legal for military vets to “use, possess, or transport medical marijuana” in accordance with state laws. Finally, it would mandate that the VA take up a study on “the effects of medical marijuana on veterans in pain” and the relationship between participation in state medical marijuana programs and any “reduction in opioid abuse among veterans.” The bill would allocate $15 million for this research.
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