Written by Board of Directors Vice Chair, Lauren Mendelsohn
From the Gazettes:
As more states move towards legalizing marijuana for adult use, people tend to forget that for many people suffering from debilitating diseases, even medical cannabis access is still a major challenge. Nowhere is this injustice more clear than for military veterans.
Doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are prohibited from recommending medical marijuana to their patients, because marijuana is a federally illegal substance and the VA is a federal agency — a position the VA affirmed in a 2011 Directive. That means that even in states where medical marijuana is legal, which now includes 40 states and Washington, D.C. (including states with “CBD only” laws), VA doctors still can’t recommend it to their patients, even if they believe it would legitimately help their pain and suffering.
This is especially problematic because many veterans rely on the doctors at the VA for their medical care since they cannot afford to see an outside physician. Additionally, some veterans are afraid of losing their benefits if they are caught using medical marijuana, so they continue to use prescription pharmaceuticals that cost the system as a whole more money (with taxpayers footing the bill) and have a great deal of negative side effects.
However, change might be on the horizon. There are a few bills introduced in Congress right now that would change this.
One is the bipartisan-supported Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which would partially legalize medical marijuana at the federal level and allow VA-affiliated healthcare providers to discuss and recommend medical marijuana with their patients.
Also, the Veterans Equal Access Amendment was added to the FY2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) Appropriations Bill, which the Senate just passed this week. This Veterans Equal Access Amendment would allow VA doctors in states with state-approved medical marijuana programs to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients.
The Senate MilCon-VA funding bill will now be negotiated with the House’s version to reach an omnibus spending bill; hopefully this provision survives the negotiations.
The lack of access to medical marijuana can be devastating for veterans suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), for which cannabis has
been shown to be an effective treatment with few downsides. Veterans suffer from PTSD at a higher rate than the general population. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD affects between 12% and 30% of military veterans, compared to only 7-8% of the general population. Furthermore, veterans suffering from PTSD are up to 50% more likely than the average individual to commit suicide, with approximately 22 military veterans taking their lives each day.
Yet when these veterans suffer from the physical and psychological pain of PTSD, we prescribe them pharmaceuticals that often create new problems,such as digestive issues or potentially dangerous chemical interactions, rather than letting veterans choose to use a natural remedy. Cannabis lacks the negative side effects that come with many prescription drugs, but it can help alleviate the pain, anxiety, sleep problems and flashbacks, which are symptomatic of PTSD.
With Veterans Day upon us, what can you do to ensure that U.S. military veterans have safe access to medical cannabis? For one, you can contact your elected officials and urge them to support the CARERS Act and other pieces of legislation that would protect the rights of veterans to use cannabis without losing their benefits and allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients.
You can also spark conversations like this one among your colleagues and in your community, and educate people about medical cannabis as an alternative and safe treatment for PTSD. It is simply unacceptable to deny potentially life-saving medicine to individuals who risked their lives to keep our country safe and protect our freedoms. This Veterans Day, I encourage you to help change that.
Lauren Mendelsohn is the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and a law student at UC Irvine. She is a Long Beach resident.