Drugs

How You Can Help Veterans Fight for Access to Medical Marijuana

There is a useful medicine for helping vets cope with PTSD. Too bad the federal government refuses to recognize it.

Travis airmen march in Veterans Day Parade
Photo Credit: Air Force

There are about 19 million veterans in the United States. Yet, after their service, many experience a myriad of crippling mental and physiological afflictions, with few resources available to help.

Yearly, a staggering 30 veterans per 100,000 commit suicide. Though that number may seem on the lower end at first glance, when compared to the civilian rate of 14 in 100,000, it paints a disheartening picture of the post-war reality many veterans face.

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If you wish to speak to somebody immediately, please call your local crisis line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).

On any given night, approximately 39,471 veterans are homeless.  While this number demonstrates a decrease in veteran homelessness, veterans still comprise 8.6% of the homeless population, a disproportionate amount.

The reason for this may be that as of 2014, 3.8 million veterans have a service-related disability.  Veterans suffer from ailments both physical and mental—often both—including anxiety, depression, PTSD, other mental health issues, damaged nerves due to exposure to chemical agents, damaged hearing due to exposure to elevated noise and vibrations, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, amputations, and more.

The Federal Government’s Gold Standard of Treatment for Wounded Veterans…

…is not cannabis.  At the end of the day, disabled veterans are experiencing some sort of pain be it physical or mental.  To remedy that, Veterans Affairs (VA) medical professionals prescribe synthetic drugs, usually a combination of those drugs, and often a cocktail that creates new and potentially lethal problems for the veterans taking them including addiction, overdose, adverse reactions, or complications for drug interaction.

This “gold standard” of treatment is especially troubling given the very vulnerable position in which injured veterans find themselves.  Having a disability can make it difficult to sustain work, relationships, and a sense of normalcy.  These conditions make veterans particularly susceptible to mental illness, and that certainly explains the extraordinarily high veteran suicide rates.  It also makes veterans vulnerable to addiction, and according to the National Veterans Foundation, veteran substance abuse is on the rise with alcohol being the primary substance of choice and prescription drugs a growing source, especially since it is handed out to them like candy.

These prescription drugs are federally legal—they’ve been approved by the FDA.  However, that does not mean that they aren’t dangerous, deadly and addictive.  Veterans know this since many of them experience the adverse reactions these synthetic medications cause.  But there is an alternative drug therapy that could (and has) improve their lives and manage their symptoms.

This alternative drug contains chemical compounds that have a symbiotic relationship with our endocannabinoids systems(ECS), the combination of chemicals, enzymes, and receptors that regulate day to day activities and promote homeostasis.  Research shows that the ECS regulates sleep, digestion, memory, mood, pain, pleasure and reward (addiction), motor control, immunity, and reproduction.  In short, a healthy ECS makes a healthy mind and body.

In addition to its powerful interaction with the ECS, this alternative therapy is organic in the sense that it is notsynthesized.  It is a natural product from the earth.  In fact, depending on where they live, some patients can grow it themselves, significantly reducing the cost of medical treatment.

Users cannot overdosefrom it.  Negative symptoms go away once it leaves the system, but those symptoms are mild compared to synthetic drugs: increased appetite (which is often desired by patients dealing with nausea or decreased appetite), temporary paranoia, dry mouth, and the sensation of euphoria.  It is also significantly less addictive than opioidsand alcohol; in fact, research suggests that this drug can help addicts overcome their substance abuse.

So what is it?  What is this drug that has been found to treat mental illness, brain injury, chronic pain, and inflammation(the root cause for an array of medical conditions)?  It’s cannabis.  And it’s federally illegal.

Because of its status as a Schedule 1 drug, veterans cannot use VA benefits to access it, and that can make things very complicated and expensive for this country’s heroes.  According to the VA, veterans who participate in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs cannot be denied access to VA healthcare, but the use or possession of cannabis is prohibited at all VA medical centers, VA medical professionals cannot prescribe cannabis or complete paperwork required for veterans to participate in legal medical marijuana programs, VA money cannot cover cannabis related expenses, and veterans who are also employees of the VA are subject to drug testing and will be penalized if they test positive for cannabis use.

Veteran Organizations Advocating for Veteran Access to Cannabis

The troubling state of cannabis’ legal status and veteran well-being has motivated some to take up the cause of cannabis access for vets.  Here are some of those organizations.

Weed for Warriors Project—Founded by a Marine Corps veteran who found relief from marijuana, this organization provides veterans with a safe environment to learn about cannabis, socialize with other veterans, and free medicine with proof of military service and a current recommendation from a health care provider.

Veterans Cannabis Group—In addition to helping cannabis businesses improve relations with their local governments, this organization’s mission is to “provide education, safe access, information on VA resources and benefits, and an opportunity for veterans to work with other veterans within the cannabis industry.”

Grow for Vets—This organization is deeply concerned with veterans’ vulnerability to drug overdose.  Its mission is to “help save the more than 50 veterans who die each day from suicide and prescription drug overdose” by providing them with cannabis as an alternative medication.

Veterans Cannabis Project—The VCP envisions in a country where medical marijuana is a legal, socially acceptable, and affordable treatment for veterans.  To bring that vision into fruition, they “foster an environment that is politically and legally favorable to US military veterans using medical marijuana to address service-related health challenges that prevent them from living the high quality of life that they have earned.”

 

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Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.