Cannabis and The VA: 4 Things You Need To Know

Veterans suffer from PTSD at a percentage much higher than the general population. Current estimates state that up to 20% of veterans of recent conflicts alone suffer from the disorder, not to mention previous wars such as Vietnam.

PTSD treatment in modern America usually requires a cocktail of opioids and antidepressants to alleviate some of the symptoms of this disorder. However, veteran groups across America are pushing back against these dangerous drugs. Instead, they are advocating for research into the use of medical cannabis, which may possess therapeutic benefits for those affected by PTSD.

It seems like it would be natural for the Veterans Affairs (VA) department to embrace cannabis in light of current research. Still, it’s not as straightforward as you’d think. Here’s what you need to know about cannabis and the VA.

 

#1 Cannabis Is Caught In Federal Crosshairs

In the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is a dangerous Schedule I drug. This harsh scheduling means that the government treats cannabis as having “no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” On top of that, Schedule I substances are drugs that “appear to create severe psychological and/or physiological dependence.”

Despite this negative categorization, current research shows that people can and do benefit from medical cannabis, which highlights how absurd this classification is. As a testament to that, 33 states and Washington DC all allow the use of medical cannabis, and the number is continually growing.

Many scientific articles point towards the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids for multiple ailments, and especially PTSD. In fact, more than half of the states in the country recognize PTSD as a qualifying condition for obtaining a certification for the use of medical cannabis.

However, the VA is a federal department that must comply with all federal laws no matter which state they reside in. Federal law always supersedes state law when dealing with a government-funded agency, unfortunately. That means as long as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, VA health care providers may not assist veterans in obtaining it or recommending it at all.

 

#2 The VA’s Hands Are Tied

Just because cannabis is illegal in the eyes of the federal government doesn’t mean the VA shuns it completely. For starters, vets enrolled in a state cannabis program will have the same eligibility for VA care and services.

The VA maintains that no veteran will be denied VA benefits because of cannabis use. According to the VA website, veterans are encouraged to discuss cannabis usage with their VA providers. Since each provider is different, some will be more open about cannabis, and others may avoid it entirely.

One massive downside with this conflict of interest is that clinicians at the VA can’t help fill out paperwork for vets trying to enroll in a state medical cannabis program. Any vet that seeks relief from cannabis programs will need to do so by themselves.

Another negative is that VA healthcare providers also can’t/won’t pay for or prescribe medical cannabis either. The only way a medication can be prescribed and paid for is if the drug is FDA approved.

So far, that only includes a handful of drugs, some of which contain synthetic cannabinoids. These FDA approved drugs are specifically for ailments such as anorexia and seizures, so they may not be useful for vets suffering from PTSD anyway.

 Charlotte Veteran Affairs Hospital

#3 Private Companies Aim To Fill The Gap

Unfortunately, the VA offers no medical cannabis programs because of its’ severe scheduling. The only way this will change is if cannabis gets rescheduled or removed from the controlled substances list entirely.

A few private companies have decided to pick up the slack by offering significant discounts to veterans in need. Small cannabis advocacy organizations, such as The Veteran’s Cannabis Group, team up with dispensaries to provide substantial discounts on products in-store.

There are also cannabis dispensaries around the country that go above and beyond on their own accord by providing discounted, free, or at-cost cannabis products to those suffering from PTSD.

 

#4 Cannabis And PTSD Research

Veteran groups across America are advocating for the research of cannabis and PTSD. Veterans suffering from PTSD are fed up with the prescription drug cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiolytics, and opioids. The devastating long-term effects and reliance on these addictive drugs are a severe problem for the veteran community. 

Last year a bill was introduced into congress by veterans called the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018. This bill hopes to kick start research from the VA into the therapeutic benefits of cannabis on PTSD. However, the law still has a long way to go and is receiving pushback from the VA itself.

Only one official study is being performed between cannabis and PTSD in the United States. Dr. Sue Sisley is in charge ofthe investigation, which is happening at the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona.

The study is based on the effect of smoked cannabis on PTSD among 76 different veterans. Daily, each veteran is given 1.8 grams of unknown potency and is told to keep a journal. Nearly five years later, the trials are almost entirely complete, but it has been a long journey. Sisley even sued the DEA earlier this year for negatively interfering with the study by restricting access to quality cannabis. The cannabis used in her research was grown by the federal government and had high levels of mycotoxins (mold), was not strictly cannabis flower, and varied widelly in cannabinoid content.

The study is funded by an organization known as MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) who has strived since the 1990s to begin funding the research. Dr. Sisley finally got formal approval to begin the study in 2014, a 20-plus-year process that has been delayed by politics.

 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, once the data is analyzed, and the paper made public, favorable results will encourage the VA to conduct more research and embrace cannabis for PTSD. More importantly, the federal government will need to take note and reschedule cannabis as a safer drug. If that happens, we will finally see the safe treatment of and easy access to medical cannabis for veterans everywhere, with the full support of the VA.

 

 

 

References

Abizaid, A., Merali, Z., & Anisman, H. (2019). Cannabis: A potential efficacious intervention for PTSD or simply snake oil?. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 44(2), 75–78. doi:10.1503/jpn.190021

FLOWER CO. US Military Veteran Membership. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.flowervets.com/

Medical Marijuana for Florida Veterans.(2019, July 9) Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://docmj.com/2019/07/06/medical-marijuana-for-florida-veterans/

National Center for PTSD. (2018, July 24). Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/common/common_Veterans.asp

Piper, B. J., Beals, M. L., Abess, A. T., Nichols, S. D., Martin, M. W., Cobb, C. M., & DeKeuster, R. M. (2017). Chronic pain patients' perspectives of medical cannabis. Pain, 158(7), 1373–1379. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000899

US Department of Veterans Affairs, & Veterans Health Administration. (2017, February 9). Public Health. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.publichealth.va.gov/marijuana.asp.

VA Policy On Veterans And Medical Marijuana. (2019, January 3). Retrieved from https://militarybenefits.info/va-medical-marijuana/

Wattenberg, S. A. (2014, March 12). Retrieved from https://maps.org/research-archive/mmj/HHS-CoverLetter-Doblin-electronic-14Mar14.pdf

Wentling, N. (n.d.). Marijuana-PTSD study concludes after 10 years of planning, research. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.stripes.com/marijuana-ptsd-study-concludes-after-10-years-of-planning-research-1.570986

DEA. Drug Scheduling. Retrieved from https://www.dea.gov/drug-scheduling

Walz, & J., T. (2018, May 18). H.R.5520 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/5520

Robinson, R., & Jane. (2019, September 20). Why Dr. Sue Sisley Sued the DEA for Stonewalling Cannabis Research. Retrieved from https://blog.norml.org/2019/09/20/why-dr-sue-sisley-sued-the-dea-for-stonewalling-cannabis-research/

 

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