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Are Veterans Benefiting from Medical Marijuana for their Opioid Abuse?

veterans medical marijuana

With so many states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana use, are veterans benefiting from medical marijuana for their opioid abuse? We know the opioid epidemic affects the entire nation. However, over 30% of deployed and non deployed veterans in the past 13 years have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s about 11-20 out of every 100 veterans in the United States. Also, over 20 percent of veterans with PTSD struggle from an addiction or dependence on drugs or alcohol.

Today, we know that medical marijuana can be a safer and less addictive option for PTSD and pain. So, why aren’t veterans benefiting from medical marijuana for their opioid abuse? Let’s explore the entire panorama. 

The VA and Cannabis

Right now, the VA’s website still labels marijuana as harmful to veterans. Under federal law, marijuana also remains on the Schedule I list under the Controlled Substances Act, the same level as heroin. Since the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a federal organization, it follows the same parameters. 

According to the VA website, “controlled studies have not been conducted to evaluate the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana for PTSD. Thus, there is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD.”

However, as the nation continues to embrace the use of medical marijuana, these standards seem to be limiting non-opioid options for veterans. Nonetheless, veterans nationwide are using cannabis to deal with PTSD symptoms, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. 

To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have enacted medical marijuana laws that allow eligible people to obtain or grow cannabis to treat a range of conditions. Not to mention, there’s overwhelming support behind medical marijuana and the recreational use of cannabis across the nation. 

In a 2017 survey by the American Legion, 92 percent of veterans said they supported research into medical cannabis, and 83 percent support legalizing medical cannabis.

Studies About PTSD and Cannabis

The VA’s stand on medical marijuana downplays the efforts many states are taking to offer non-addictive options to opioid painkillers. A new study concluded that cannabis could help people cope with symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide in people with PTSD. 

Other studies show that people with PTSD but don’t medicate with cannabis are more likely to suffer from severe depression and have more suicidal thoughts than those who report using cannabis. 

The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) recently announced new grants to explore the safety of medical cannabis as an alternative or additional treatment for insomnia, rheumatoid arthritis, alcohol dependence, and schizophrenia. 

However, the center, which is directly linked to the VA’s regional office in San Diego, does not have any current studies looking at cannabis and PTSD.

Why the VA Won’t Approve Medical Marijuana

To start, the VA faces the hurdle that cannabis remains a Schedule I substance. Under the federal government, cannabis has “no acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The VA considers all forms of marijuana illegal, meaning veterans can’t get help accessing medical marijuana from their VA doctors and have to get it on their own.

Moving cannabis from the Schedule I list would require the involvement of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The process is long and complicated, not to mention it requires the involvement of Congress. As far as cannabis, the VA wants more research before it can move to approve the use of the drug. 

There’s already an FDA-approved drug, which is a cannabinoid, and it’s used for pediatric epilepsy. Unfortunately, the VA can talk about cannabis and its potential medical effects, but they can’t prescribe cannabis. The barriers and bureaucracy around the organization simply keep cannabis research out of their scope of work. 

According to the VA policy, participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services. VA providers can discuss cannabis use with veteran patients and adjust care and treatment plans as needed. Veterans are encouraged to discuss medical marijuana use with their VA providers as part of their confidential medical record.

Unfortunately, veterans living in more conservative states might have more difficulties openly discussing marijuana use for their illnesses. 

Military Veterans for Medical Marijuana

Various veteran groups support medical cannabis and advocate for the drug’s potential against opioid medications. 

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the country’s largest veterans service organization for post-9/11 war veterans, conducts various surveys. Their most recent annual national survey showed that 1 in 5 of its members uses medical marijuana. But fewer than one-third of those veterans said they mentioned this to their doctor because of the stigma attached to marijuana use.

So far, veterans have tried to push legislation at the Congress to make medical marijuana available at the VA. Unfortunately, their efforts have met hard stops. These are some of the bills that failed to move forward:

Looking Forward

We don’t know if the VA will approve the use of medical marijuana in the future. Marijuana could potentially be a solution for those struggling with PTSD and chronic pain. Instead of reaching for the next opioid prescription, marijuana could be a safer alternative treatment option for many.  Not to mention, it could help bring down overdose death, prevent opioid overdose, and other side effects of prescription drugs.

Of course, this is in addition to mental health counseling, treatment, and other efforts to promote their wellbeing.