The wave of marijuana legalization has made cannabis legally accessible to medical and recreational patients across the states, but many of the nation's most medically vulnerable groups still find it difficult to access and pay for medical cannabis. Veterans have reported using medicinal marijuana to relieve a host of mental and physical ailments, but the government's stance against marijuana prevents research and access.
Veterans Affairs Against Medical Marijuana
Because the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a federal agency, veteran access to federally approved cannabis is impossible. Under federal law, cannabis is an illegal Schedule I substance. VA doctors aren't allowed to prescribe medical marijuana to ailing veterans. Veterans can still receive a medical marijuana recommendation from a non-VA doctor, but VA insurance won't cover the costs.
Currently, VA scientists are allowed to conduct research on the benefits and risks of cannabis and its potential for abuse, but only with federal approval. One VA study in San Diego aims to test whether cannabidiol (CBD) has any effect on PTSD symptoms, but otherwise, VA-funded studies are lacking.
Privacy Protections for Veterans
While the VA will not go out of its way to recommend medical marijuana, it does allow VA doctors to discuss marijuana use with veterans to optimize their treatment plan. Veterans will not lose out on benefits if they disclose marijuana use, but this is only a VA policy, not a law. Marijuana use will be included in medical records, which is protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws.
VA Treatment for Health Conditions
Veterans suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, or other health conditions common amongst veterans, are treated with a personalized combination of drugs and therapies including psychiatric treatment and medications. While these treatments may be helpful for some, others may experience harmful effects such as addiction and overdose.
Qualifying Conditions in Medical Marijuana Programs
Veterans returning home from service can be affected by a variety of medical conditions including depression, chronic pain, musculoskeletal injuries, infection, traumatic brain injuries, and more.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common qualifying conditions for medical marijuana prescriptions. In fact, 30 of the 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana consider PTSD a qualifying condition. Studies on veterans have been focused on the effectiveness of treating PTSD with medical marijuana.
The VA has determined that about 20 veterans take their own lives every day. And one study found that veterans were "more likely to act on a suicidal plan." More research clearly needs to be done into this important issue.
Unintended Consequences for Veterans
Countless individuals are enjoying consuming cannabis, but veterans have reason to fear losing out on more than just veterans benefits. Some veterans are losing their retirement benefits due to their association with marijuana. 36-year-old former Army Major Tye Reedy lost his position as a part-time military academy liaison officer and his ability to collect his pension.
Reedy's position as the Director of Operations at the cannabis firm Acreage Holdings went against "Army values" according to a U.S. Army statement. Being associated with the cannabis industry can hold even more consequences. One case found a woman being rejected from using bankruptcy because she worked at a staffing agency that recruited employees for the cannabis industry.
Veteran Groups for Medical Marijuana Access
Veteran groups are taking matters into their own hands by making their voices heard on medical marijuana access laws for veterans. Many advocacy groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) support research into veterans and medical marijuana. Research could make the case for cannabis' effect on medical conditions like chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Veterans Cannabis Project
Veterans Cannabis Project, was founded in 2017 by former Navy SEAL Nick Etten in order to teach lawmakers about the benefits of medical marijuana use for veterans. Through Operation Legal Access, their team of advocates holds open round-table discussions with D.C. policymakers.
Veterans Cannabis Group
The Veterans Cannabis Group, founded by Iraq war veteran Aaron Augustis, is another advocacy group that provides educational resources for veterans and a network of advocates that can help bring change across the nation.
Weed for Warriors
Weed for Warriors is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2014 to advocate to the VA for veteran access to medicinal marijuana. Weed for Warriors has used its extensive network to bring many veterans free access to medical marijuana. However, after Proposition 64 in California, free cannabis was no longer allowed.
HeroGrown (formerly Grow for Vets) is another advocacy group working to give veterans and other first responders access to legal cannabis. Founded by Army veteran Roger Martin, HeroGrown ships CBD products to veterans. Their CBD AirDrop program has given veterans and first-responders free CBD.
VA Resists Change
Three recent bills on veterans and medical marijuana were presented to the House Veterans' Affairs health subcommittee. The Veterans Equal Access Act sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) would end restrictions on VA doctors' ability to prescribe medical marijuana to veterans. Blumenauer has been pushing for the bill since 2014.
The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, sponsored by Luis Correa (D-California) would appoint the VA to conduct large research trials on the effectiveness of medical marijuana on a variety of medical conditions and delivery methods. The VA opposes this bill because it does not follow standard medical research practice.
The final bill of the bunch, the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act, aims to prohibit the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from refusing to give veterans' benefits to veterans that use medical marijuana, if they live in a state where it's legalized. The VA states this bill is unnecessary because the VA does not deny benefits based on marijuana use. This bill would essentially make it an official law instead of a VA policy.
In April 2019, the Department of Veteran Affairs voted against three legislative proposals that would give veterans increased access to marijuana and increased research on veterans and medical marijuana. President Trump's VA officials deferred to the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency's prohibitive stance on marijuana.
Policymakers Push Forward
Congress and the Trump Administration continue to stall bills focused on veterans and medical marijuana. In spite of the opposition, many politicians continue to fight the good fight. Democratic Presidential nominee Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Massachusets) filed three bills based on previously introduced marijuana-related bills. These bills would establish an official Veterans' Affairs policy on medical marijuana and protections for veterans.
Moulton's Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act bill allows veterans "to use, possess, or transport medical marijuana in accordance with applicable state law" and discuss the use of medical marijuana with a VA physician. VA doctors would also be allowed to prescribe medical marijuana to veterans.
How to Help Veterans Access Medical Marijuana
There are many ways cannabis consumers and non-consumers can help. For one, you can donate money or time to veterans advocacy organizations and brands devoted to bringing medical cannabis to veterans. Many cannabis brands are taking a more conscientious approach to capitalism by providing veterans with discounts and more.
You can also advocate for local changes such as reducing possession penalties. Finally, you can vote for representatives that are open to making a difference in veterans' lives. Check out NORML's Congressional scorecard to see how cannabis-friendly your state representatives are.
Despite the progress, veterans are still a long way from having medical cannabis easily accessible. Veterans require streamlined processes for receiving medical cannabis prescriptions and insurance coverage for their medication. Research into veterans and medical marijuana can sway political action to change our current policy restricting veterans use of cannabis.
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