A Great Injustice: Veterans and Medical Cannabis Access

By Lauren Mendelsohn

As more states move towards legalizing marijuana for adult use, people tend to forget that, for many people suffering from debilitating diseases, even basic access to medical cannabis remains a major challenge. Nowhere is this injustice more clear than in the case of military veterans.

Cannabis has been used for its medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and modern studies have confirmed its healing properties. It has been shown to be effective for treating AIDS, multiple sclerosis, pain, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, cancer and more. Furthermore, our bodies are hard-wired for cannabis, and one of the leading researchers on the endocannabinoid system even has a laboratory here at UCI.

Yet, doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are prohibited from recommending medical marijuana to their patients, as 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, DC (including states with “CBD only” laws that legalize high CBD, commonly believed to the be the therapeutic component of cannabis, and low THC, commonly believed to be the psychoactive component of cannabis, content oils and tinctures) — 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 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, 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. 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’s version of the 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 12-30 percent of military veterans, compared to only 7-8 percent of the general population. Furthermore, veterans suffering from PTSD are up to 50 percent more likely than the average individual to commit suicide, with approximately 22 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, like digestive issues or dangerous interactions, rather than letting veterans choose to use a natural remedy. Cannabis lacks the negative side-effects that come with many prescription drugs and it can help alleviate the pain, anxiety, sleeplessness and flashbacks that result from 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. I encourage you to help change that.

 

Lauren Mendelsohn is a third-year law student and is the founder of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at UCI Law. She can be reached at mendelsl@lawnet.uci.edu.