Our Laws Still Prevent Access to Cannabis for Veterans

January 31, 2019

Source: Nick Etten, VP of Government Affiars, Acreage Holdings

For some of our soldiers, the battle never stops. One in three U.S. veterans has been diagnosed with a chronic pain-related condition. Up to 20 percent of our 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will fight against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in any given year, while about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have suffered PTSD in their lifetime. Medical cannabis must be one of the tools for treating the physical and mental wounds of people who put everything on the line for their country.

There’s plenty of proof that cannabis works as a treatment for chronic pain and PTSD. Studies show the drug relieves pain — such as inflammation, swelling, tension and sore muscles. Cannabis has won recognition from experts such as the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association as a safer alternative to many legal treatments.

Cannabis also alleviates the distressing and persistent symptoms of PTSD. Veterans who have suffered from a range of symptoms — such as traumatic flashbacks, insomnia, relationship problems and drug and alcohol abuse — report that cannabis has saved their lives.

That is because PTSD sufferers are at a higher risk of suicide. Forty percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members have known at least one post-9/11 veteran who committed suicide, while 31 percent have thought about taking their own life. It is no exaggeration to say that medical cannabis can really be a matter of life or death.

An overwhelming majority of Americans supports medical cannabis. An online HealthDay/Harris Poll survey conducted in May reports that more than 80 percent of Americans favor legalization for medical use.

But right now, cannabis is not an option for most veterans. While cannabis is legal in some form in two-thirds of U.S. states, it is still classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule 1 drug, a designation meant for those drugs with no currently accepted medical use. It means that cannabis shares the same status as heroin.

So Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities are prohibited by law from prescribing cannabis, and insurance does not cover it as a medical treatment option. The result: the VA continues to treat vets with cocktails of painkillers that are contributing to the growing opioid crisis in the U.S.

Without the benefit of insurance, a veteran choosing cannabis over opioids can expect to spend thousands of dollars annually. It’s around $300 for an initial consultation and diagnosis, and then roughly another $100 for a state marijuana card. If a doctor prescribes 1 gram daily — a relatively typical amount — that would cost $15 a day, or $5,460 for a full year — a huge cost for most vets who earn about $40,000 a year.

We’re making good progress at the state level: medical cannabis is now legal in 32 states and the District of Columbia. However, our veterans need to start seeing movement at the federal level to have any hope of easier access to the cannabis they desperately need.

About the Author:  Nick Etten is Vice President/Government Affairs at Acreage Holdings. Prior, Nick was Executive Director of the Veterans Cannabis Project.