Whether from past wars like Vietnam or the existing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, returning veterans are suffering from a variety of injuries that are both physical and psychological. The maladies that are most prevalent are pain and mental health issues—particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD affects people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, including war, sexual assault, natural disasters, accidents or abuse. It has been labeled a soldier’s illness, since those who have served in combat are much more likely to develop it.
“I found cannabis to be way more effective than the any of the drugs they were giving me with none of the bad effects.”
These ailments are being treated at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals with a cornucopia of prescription pharmaceuticals that may or may not work, but are guaranteed to have multiple negative side effects. Musculoskeletal injuries and pain make up over half of all veterans’ post-deployment health visits. Almost 60 percent of veterans returning from the last decade of war list chronic pain as their most common medical problem.
The VA’s answer is to hand out opioids like candy with up to one-third of vets being given hydrocodone and other opioid-based prescriptions. The VA has belatedly realized the disastrous consequence of death and addiction from opioid use and has taken steps to reduce the use of opioids. Everything from acupuncture to tai chi is being touted by the VA, but these are only marginally effective at best.
Up to 20 percent of returning Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD. The VA has estimated that almost 31 percent of American soldiers developed PTSD during their service in Vietnam. Of those affected, over 80 percent are still suffering at least moderate impairment today.
Suffering from PTSD or other mental conditions is a constant struggle, but many veterans have discovered how cannabis can help. Many of those vets have been advocates for the herb, especially with hopes that one day it will be approved by the VA.
Ronnie Downey, a Vietnam veteran living with PTSD, was prescribed four different psychotic medicines when he returned home. The side effects were not ideal, and even though he complained to the VA, they only prescribed him more medicine to try and counter those side effects. After two years, Downey turned to cannabis for relief. “I started using edible cannabis 12 years ago, and since then I have weaned myself off all psychotic meds. I was taking Wellbutrin and three other medications I can’t even remember the name of. I found cannabis to be way more effective than the any of the drugs they were giving me with none of the bad effects,” he said.
The VA has no problem handing out anti-psychotics by the bucketful, but since cannabis is a Schedule I substance and the VA is a federal agency, VA doctors are forbidden from providing it. They cannot even write a recommendation.
When it comes to accessing the cannabis that will actually provide symptomatic relief from their pain, PTSD or other ailments, veterans are on their own. A recent update to the VA’s website made it clear that this policy will not be changing anytime soon, but did reiterate the long-standing policy that “veteran participation in state medical cannabis programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services.”
Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, was the driving force behind getting the VA to issue a directive in 2010 making it clear that veterans are allowed to use medical cannabis in states where it’s legal.
Krawitz emphasizes that “National policy of the VA is to allow room for veterans to use medical marijuana under state law and integrate that into their health care plan. On the local level, the veteran should be able to go to their MD with their medical marijuana card and have it entered into their medical record. They are seeing doctors not lawyers—there should be no discussions about legal issues only medical issues.”
War is hell, but after our vets return home, their lives should not be. For many, cannabis will make sure it is not.