UPDATE: May 31, 2021 – The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act has been reintroduced in Congress. MORE would allow veterans to obtain medical cannabis recommendations from their VA doctors in states that have an established medical cannabis program. Please contact your Representative and tell them to support its swift passage.
May 25, 2020 – On this Memorial Day, we remember all those who gave their lives in military service, and the veterans who commit suicide at a rate of 22 per day.
The Department of Veterans Affairs reported in 2019 that at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, and the suicide rate is increasing despite the VA’s efforts at suicide prevention. By comparison, an estimated 58,200 Americans died in the Vietnam war. Overall in 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, after adjusting for population differences in age and sex, the report said.
Many veterans tell us that they are living in pain, often due to injuries sustained in service, and that the opiates they are prescribed by the VA have made their lives not worth living, due to their side effects. Numerous studies have shown that cannabis can be helpful for pain and for ending or mitigating opiate use, yet VA doctors are not permitted to recommend medical cannabis to veterans, nor does the VA supply medical cannabis or help with its cost. By contrast, Veterans Affairs Canada reimburses veterans for cannabis at the rate of $8.50 per gram.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Lou Correa (Anaheim) would enable VAs to research medical marijuana. It passed in the House Veterans Affairs committee, but only after an amendment weakened the language. Multiple bills have been introduced in the House to expand medical cannabis access to eligible military veterans, the most prominent of which is Representative Earl Blumenauer’s (D-OR) HR 1647, the Veterans Equal Access Act, which has also passed in the Veterans Affairs committee.
PTSD is another condition for which many vets report improvement with cannabis, particularly in stopping recurring nightmares. Researcher Sue Sisley is suing the DEA for impeding her research into PTSD and cannabis with veterans.
Meanwhile, Weed for Warriors reports that hundreds of vets are lining up for cannabis meds now donate-able to needy patients under the tax-free compassion program, thanks to SB 34 (Wiener) that was signed into law last year. WFW has held med drops in Modesto and Sacramento, and plans to do them in OC and LA. Other retailers and delivery services across the state are putting compassion programs in place, in partnership with vendors.
A report on the viability of nonprofit cannabis collectives in California originally due January 1, 2018 (per Prop. 64) was pushed back to 1/1/2020, but still has not been released by the Bureau of Cannabis Control. Research projects (for which some $20 million should have accumulated by now) under Rev & Tax Section 34019 (b) in Prop. 64 have not been dispersed, nor have RFPs been issued for them.
Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access was able to get the VA to issue a policy, renewed in 2017 as VHA Policy Directive 2017-1315 stating, “Veterans must not be denied VHA services solely because they are participating in State-approved marijuana programs.” The purpose of the policy is “to support the Veteran-provider relationship when discussing the use of marijuana and its impact on health including Veteran-specific treatment plans.” Yet vets in California continue to report that they are fearful that such discussions will block their access to prescription medicines, or other services.
RESEARCH ON CANNABIS AND VETERANS, OPIATES
According to nationwide survey data conducted by The American Legion in 2017, 39 percent of respondents affirmed that they “know a veteran” who is using the plant medicinally. Furthermore, twenty-two percent of respondents said they themselves “use cannabis to treat a mental or physical condition.”
Researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Harvard Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania surveyed 93 veterans who received donations of medicinal cannabis from the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, based in Santa Cruz County, CA. The results were published in May 2019 in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Most veterans — 79% — reported using cannabis to treat both physical and mental health symptoms. Chronic pain was the most common symptom reported, followed by anxiety, PTSD, depression and insomnia. And nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they used cannabis instead of another drug, most commonly prescription pharmaceuticals, but also alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs.
And a new study found that enactment of adult-use marijuana legalization in Colorado is associated with a significant reduction in prescription opioid distribution, according to data published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
An article published in August 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Marcus A. Bachhuber, M.D., of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and colleagues shows that the number of opiate overdoses is down in states with medical marijuana programs, and suicides in those states are also down, according to a study co-authored by San Diego State economics professor Joseph J. Sabia.
“Viet Nam vets have shown me that, in many cases, cannabis is the one medicine that has consistently helped their seriously disabling symptoms, allowing them to function, hold jobs, keep their relationships intact, and raise families for the past 30 or so years, when years of therapy and numerous medicines have not,” said Frank Lucido, a Berkeley-based MD and Cal NORML board member who specializes in cannabis therapy.
Resources for Veterans:
From Shock to Awe – a film following veterans and their wives about their use of cannabis and ayahuasca for therapy.
Cannabis: A Matter of Life and Death (2018, The Emerald Cup panel)