There’s a wave of change happening in the military, and it is being led by its own rank and file. Veterans like John Tescione, Shamus O’ Reilly, and Bruce Frampton say that medical cannabis has helped to improve and even save their lives.
“A life without cannabis,” says John, an 18-year Canadian veteran, “I would be an alcoholic, and I would be dead eventually.” It’s a fate that finds many returning veterans. Nearly half of service members in the US report binge drinking according to National Institute on Drug Abuse. The rate of opioid addiction among vets is also over two times that of the civilian population according to statistics from the US Department of Defense.
The cocktail of opioids that are currently prescribed by doctors have come to be known among veterans as, “zombie drugs” for their cataleptic effects. But most veterans who return from deployment just want a chance to live a normal life, not a sedated one.
Unfortunately, as these vets point out, the generational stigma around cannabis has misinformed their friends and family and resulted in some broken relationships – all over their choice of medicine.
“How people think about the high that you get from cannabis has really been distorted.” Shamus insists.
Most recently, that distortion has led to a change in policy in Canada, where marijuana will be legal recreationally in 2018. A new policy from Veterans Affairs Canada, announced in May, has the lowered the daily limit for prescription coverage from 10 grams a day to just three. The reason? A review from VA found that that the cost of medical cannabis had increased significantly over the past ten years because of an increase in use.
So it would appear that as veterans are turning to marijuana, the government is turning away. The VA’s new policy does allow for vets to receive uninsured cannabis elsewhere. The only issue is the last Operational Stress Injury (OSI) clinic in the country to offer medical cannabis stopped doing so in January.
“These are people,” Dr. Anthony Njoku of the Fredericton OSI clinic told CBC, “who are struggling. You don’t want to be the one who’s added on top of that all in the vain attempt at helping them. You then end up making them much worse.”
This closure comes despite the fact that the science is out, and a wide range of studies have fallen consistently on the side of marijuana’s therapeutic effects.
In the U.S., the situation is even more difficult for vets. The VA has recently changed their policy, but not in any way that could meaningfully get veterans their medicine. Those who receive their healthcare from the VA are now allowed to consult a doctor about the use of cannabis – though the VA still won’t cover that medicine, even if the doctor recommends it.
It’s a policy that appears to hinge on internal frustration. The VA knows its veterans have been advocating for this medicine, but its hands are tied by federal law which lists it as a Schedule 1 drug with no medical benefits.
“There may be some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement made in the spring of 2017, “but until the time that federal law changes, we are not able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”
For the more than 9 million veterans enrolled in the VA’s health care system, that conflicting policy has forced them to look elsewhere, and has also shaken their faith in the system itself.
“Vets who have to deal with the VA should be given weed just to treat the frustration of having to deal with a shitty health care system,” One U.S. Marine Staff Sargent and Iraq War veteran who wished to remain anonymous told HERB, “it should be prescribed to us just for having to put up with the VA.”
He agrees – as Shamus points out – that PTSD has a broad definition and could mean anything from PTSD flashbacks to depression. But the Staff Sargent says believes it’s because very little research has been done on the condition – especially when it comes to treatment with cannabis. The legal maze the federal government has built around medical cannabis has even prevented the VA from participating in a study specifically designed to test whether cannabis could help veterans with PTSD.
Instead, he says, those decisions are being left to anti-cannabis politicians which he believes should count as a conflict of interest.
“Those decisions are being made by someone in Washington,” He says, “who has never served in the military, never seen battle, never had PTSD, has never smoked weed in their lives and are only against it out of some misguided policy their party has established – maybe we shouldn’t be letting them decide what kind of medicine we need.”