Two Veterans Tell Their Story: VA Hospitals in Southern California Deny Medical Marijuana Patients Their Prescription Meds
UPDATE 1/11/15: Horse has now been told that the old policy is still in effect and she will be denied her meds; she has been drug tested. Charles was told on Christmas eve that his meds will not be restored.
UPDATE 12/11/14: Horse reports that her pain and Xanax prescriptions have been restored, after she informed her patient advocate that the national VA ethics committee contracted the regional VISN 22 office about their policy. Horse is still attempting to have her Marinol prescription restored.
Lurae Horse served in Air Force as airplane mechanic in Panama during the Grenada conflict. A domestic violence incident left her with brain trauma and an inner ear problem, causing severe vertigo. One of the side effects of THC is vertigo, but since it seems to spin her in the opposite direction, a neurologist figured out that synthetic THC pills called Marinol, which are prescribable under Schedule II, work for her.
Three other VAs were giving her Marinol, in Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Horse says. But when she moved to Long Beach in April, the VA there wouldn’t prescribe her Marinol, so she went on medical marijuana, which is working for her. “If I have 30 mg of THC everyday, I can function,” Horse said. "Otherwise, I’m in a wheelchair: I instantly throw up and cannot walk.”
Horse was labeled a “drug addict” in her VA file, and taken off the opiate pain medication Norco by a nurse practitioner at the VA about a month ago. Since she was only on a low dose of Norco, she is able to control the pain she suffers from arthritis and a rotator cuff injury by using the right strains of marijuana, augmented with occasional steroid shots in her shoulder.
She’s more worried about the latest VA pronouncement that she must be “weaned off” her prescription Xanax. She suffers from panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, she says. Without her anti-anxiety meds, Horse says she couldn’t ride buses, or make her doctor appointments. She says her therapist is against the idea of taking her off her medication, but her patient advocate insists it's VA policy, presenting her with a directive from a mid-level bureaucrat that contradicts national policy. "Month to month I worry, am I going to get my pills or not?” Horse said.
Horse says the VA is targeting other medical marijuana patients she has spoken to. Her broader concern is, "They’re going to end up taking somebody’s anxiety medication away, and someone’s going to go really crazy. Not the brightest thing they can do…take them off their meds to keep them calm.”
Charles (not his real name) was in the Army from 2003-06, an 82nd Airborne division paratrooper. During a training exercise in North Carolina he broke his back in two different places, and rolled a kneecap. Now he’s a Section 8 recipient with a 60% disability rating. He works as a security supervisor to support his family.
Charles got a medical marijuana recommendation in January after moving to Riverside, California last August. He’s been on the same Tramidol regimen for his pain for four years, but in July that non-opoid drug was put into Schedule IV, effective on August 18.
In September his doctor cut Charles's Tramidol prescription in half, then brought it down by another 20 pills in October. She told him, with her manager present, that she disagreed with the policy but that her hands were tied by the VA. "It’s horrible,” Charles said. "I’m suffering, I’ve got kids, I’m a single dad. Tylenol and Ibuprofen don't cut it with the nature of my injury.” He adds, "They’re not offering physical therapy, any kind of alternative; just, ‘Give up your medical marijuana, or give up your meds.’"
He doesn’t want to take opioids for his pain. “I don’t get DTs when I stop smoking,” he said. "I went through that after the injury; don’t want to go back there.”
"I’ve never been treated like this at the VA,” Charles said. "I volunteered for the army and I trusted them, and then I got injured. I feel targeted, like I’m less of person because I use medical marijuana.”