Thirty-three states plus the District of Columbia in the US legalized medical marijuana for their constituents. That’s 66 percent of the states in the US, not including the District of Columbia, that find merit in medical marijuana to treat a variety of conditions. Yet some of the nation’s population who may need the benefits of cannabis most are denied access. Veterans have no legal right to medical marijuana to treat their chronic pain, PTSD, and other health challenges, yet they represent a subsection of the population who can benefit most.
The stumbling block is that on a federal level, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 substance, making it illegal to use or possess. Regardless that a majority of states have passed medical marijuana legislation and almost a dozen have passed recreational use legislation, the federal government remains with its head in the sand, denying what most of the population already know—cannabis and especially medical marijuana has its merits.
But because the federal government refuses to entertain the possibility, many veterans today are faced with a “combat cocktail,” which is a
combination of drugs prescribed to veterans to treat PTSD, anxiety, depression, pain, and more. They face opioids and other medications with serious side effects that affect their quality of life. Some turn to weed on their own to find relief.
Are veterans risking their benefits?
Many veterans are afraid to let their VA doctors know about their marijuana use in fear they’ll be denied benefits. This leaves VA physicians in the lurch without the information they
need to prescribe medications that may or may not be affected by cannabis use.
Currently, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ policy on medical marijuana is a bit flexible. They understand that more and more veterans are turning to medical marijuana to relieve symptoms of PTSD and other medical issues resulting from their service. Their legal stance is that any substance illegal at the federal level may not be recommended, prescribed, or endorsed by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What does this mean for veterans?
Veterans will not lose VA benefits for talking about their medical marijuana use with their VA care providers. Specifically, the policy reads:
“Veteran participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services. VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with veterans
as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.”
Note, however, that this applies to retired or separated military members only. For those currently serving, including those in the Guard or Reserve, they are still subject to the Department of Defense’s policy on drug use.
Retired veterans can feel comfortable that they will not be denied benefits because of their marijuana use. As part of federal regulations and laws, anything they tell their VA care
provider is protected and confidential as part of their medical record.
The big hurdle right now is that VA doctors and providers cannot recommend, prescribe, or condone medical marijuana as a treatment for veterans. Veterans must go to a non-VA facility or
provider to be certified for a medical marijuana card in states where it’s legal.
The VA will not pay for any “prescribed” medical marijuana. Nor can any staff or VA clinics prescribe or fill medical marijuana prescriptions.
So where does this leave veterans who desperately need the benefits of cannabis to help them relieve their combat-related health issues?
Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced S.445, the Veterans Medical Marijuana
Safe Harbor Act in February 2019. Its purpose is:
“To allow veterans to use, possess, or transport medical marijuana and to discuss the use of medical marijuana with a physical of the Department of Veterans Affairs as authorized by a State or Indian Tribe, and for other purposes.”
Some findings in the bill are substantial:
- Almost 60 percent of veterans serving in the Middle East and over 50 percent of older
veterans live with chronic pain.
- Opioids cause 63 percent of all drug deaths in the United States.
- Veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdose.
Their reasoning is that in states where medical marijuana is legal, opioid overdose deaths are 24.8 percent lower than states without medical marijuana. Also, the bill states that marijuana and its components have shown they can effectively treat a wide range of diseases and disorders, including pain management.
The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act proposes that veterans should have access to medical marijuana. It also stipulates that VA doctors in states with legal medical marijuana laws should be able to prescribe or recommend veterans for cannabis treatment.
The bill also sets aside $15 million to study marijuana and its effectiveness for treating veterans’ health issues. Part of that research would look at whether access to cannabis could reduce opioid abuse in veterans.
The bill has already received a litany of endorsements from the American Academy of Pain Medicine, American Pain Society, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans Cannabis Coalition, National Cannabis Industry Association, Americans for Safe Access, Marijuana Policy Project, Drug Policy Alliance, and Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
In fact, Tom Porter, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, released a statement saying, “Eighty-three percent of respondents to our recently released member survey approved of cannabis use for medicinal purposes. With such overwhelming support, we need to be removing barriers to care for veterans, not maintaining them.”
Cannabis organizations not waiting on legislation to help veterans
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience PTSD or depression. Medical marijuana can help them. In fact, experts from the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association, and the American Nurses Association recognize weed as a safer alternative to the federally legal treatments used by the VA. Four organizations aren’t waiting for federal legislation to finally help these veterans; they’ve taken matters into their own hands.
Weed for Warriors is a California-based non-profit with chapters around the state and in Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Washington, DC, and Wisconsin. They’re working to establish international chapters in countries like Great Britain and Australia. Marine veteran Kevin Richardson started the non-profit in San Jose, California, in 2014. Its president Sean Kiernan is a former US Army Airborne infantryman who, after tours in Central and South America, suffering from PTSD, attempted suicide and was involuntarily committed to a VA hospital. Kiernan found cannabis, and it turned his life around.
Weed for Warriors’ goal is to educate veterans on the benefits of medical marijuana and provide free cannabis to veterans with proof of service and a medical marijuana recommendation.
Founder Aaron Augustis served in the US Army and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He fully believes in the medicinal benefits of cannabis to deal with traumatic life events like the war in Iraq. He started the Veterans Cannabis Group in 2014 to help other veterans get access to medical marijuana and to provide education and opportunities for veterans to work in the cannabis industry. The organization also helps veterans find the VA resources and benefits they so desperately need.
Originally called Grow for Vets, Hero Grown was founded in 2014 by Roger Martin, a US Army veteran and former law enforcement officer who reluctantly tried cannabis to try to break a 10-year addiction to opioids prescribed for his chronic pain. He credits marijuana with literally saving his life. Since 2010, Martin and his organization has given away over $4 million worth of cannabis and CBD products to America’s heroes. They ship hemp CBD products directly to veterans and first responders across the US and provide education and awareness about the health benefits of marijuana.
Nick Etten founded the Veterans Cannabis Project in 2017. He served as a US Navy Seal and became interested in improving his fellow veterans’ quality of life by choosing medical cannabis. The project’s mission is to provide education, advocacy, research support, and partnerships with like-minded organizations. But more importantly, they work to help veterans recover from the traumas they suffered during active duty through access to medical marijuana. The Veterans Cannabis Project also helps vets find employment in the cannabis industry.
Another organization, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is advocating for veterans to have safe, convenient, and affordable access to marijuana through a variety of methods. They’ve existed since 1970 to educate the public about cannabis and eliminate the stigma surroundings its use.
Those who serve in the armed forces fearlessly put their lives on the line to serve their country. As veterans, however, many return home to civilian life with plenty of battle scars, both visible and invisible. The federal government continues to work to find the best way to help these wounded warriors, but it moves ponderously slow.
The VA reported that as many as 20 military veterans take their own lives daily. And over 50 vets a day overdose on opiates they got from VA facilities. Weed could be the lifesaver our nation’s vets need. In fact, young veterans report that cannabis is the only thing that’s ever helped with their PTSD. Organizations like those listed above demand that veterans have safe access to medical marijuana to treat PTSD, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, and other physical and mental health issues. It’s time the federal government change marijuana’s classification as a Schedule 1 substance and make it legally available to veterans—and everyone else who can benefit from it.