Memorial Day is one of the most meaningful holidays in the United States. A very controversial and prominent point of discussion for veterans on this particular Memorial Day is their access to medical marijuana. It is a challenging and frustrating topic for our military veterans and advocates. Cannabis has shown very promising evidence of its ability to offer medicinal treatment for conditions that many veterans struggle with, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Another major challenge our veterans are contending with is opioid addiction. Many veterans receive their health care from the federal government’s VA Healthcare System and are prescribed opioid pain killers to treat their chronic pain and anti-depressants for PTSD. These sorts of drugs can have strong side effects and be highly addictive. Roughly 20 years ago the VA started over prescribing hard opioid based drugs to veterans, and by 2011 veterans were twice as likely to die from a drug overdose than non-veterans. More than 64,000 people are dying in the United States annually due to opioid overdoses and 60% of those deaths are from prescription drugs. Many veterans now argue that cannabis is a better treatment for their conditions than prescription drugs and that it is not addictive, helping to wean them off of their addictions.
However, while 29 states around the country have legalized medical marijuana, and while many of those states list PTSD and chronic pain as qualifying conditions, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug. The strict federal status means the VA Healthcare System does not acknowledge the legitimacy of cannabis as a viable treatment. The VA will not help veterans pay for medical cannabis nor advise them on it. But, that is changing. Earlier this year the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed a measure that would have the Department of Veterans Affairs start researching medical marijuana. Constant pressure from veterans and advocates around the country has forced the federal government to acknowledge cannabis and its potential as a viable medicine.
Research has moved very slowly up until this point though. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is the only place for researchers to access cannabis legally, as far as the federal government is concerned, and it can take years to be granted approval from the DEA. The cannabis from the Mississippi institution is typically very low quality and not what a veteran would find in a state legal dispensary. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies received permission from the DEA in 2016 to research cannabis for PTSD treatment. The director of the program, Rick Doblin, was recently quoted by Cannabis Now as saying, “The expansion of research is barely happening.”
Perhaps this new research measure from the House Veterans’ Affair Committee will begin to fast track research for veterans on how cannabis can help with their PTSD and chronic pain. Research is the key to cannabis possibly being either rescheduled or completely descheduled from the Substance Abuse Act. If rigorous research on cannabis determines that the medical benefits of cannabis outweigh any negative health impacts from its use, than the federal government will be forced to change the scheduling of cannabis.
On this Memorial Day, let’s all acknowledge that our veterans not only fought on the front lines of war, but have been forced to continue the battle here at home on many contentious issues. Veterans may benefit as much from medical cannabis as any other group in the country, yet they are also the ones facing the largest challenges gaining access to it. They may be the group that has broken through the barriers that will allow the research on cannabis that the federal government requires to even consider legalizing cannabis.