Veterans Still Denied Medical Marijuana, But Law Could Change

A recent study by the Veterans Administration shows that over 200,000 soldiers and personnel suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, yet many of them are not afforded legal access to the one avenue that could perhaps help them most in relieving its symptoms — medicinal marijuana.

That number — 239,174 according to the latest figures available from December 2012 (meaning that number has in all probability increased) — represents approximately 30 percent of all the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though distribution of medicinal marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, federal regulations make possession illegal, so veterans oftentimes are cut off from its availability. VA doctors, for example, are not allowed to prescribe medicinal cannabis. As a result, veterans battling PTSD are instead relegated to ingesting any number of anti-depressants, such as Prozac, Zoloft, or Praxil.

Help, while still far on the horizon, appears to be on the way. Five weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved by a vote of 18-12 a bipartisan amendment that would make it easier for veterans to receive medicinal marijuana.

The Veterans Equal Access Amendment, sponsored by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), would grant VA doctors the authority to prescribe cannabis for treatment of PTSD.

“Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated the same as any other resident, and should be able to discuss marijuana with their doctor and use it if it’s medically necessary,” said Michael Collins, Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement. “They have served this country valiantly, so the least we can do is allow them to have full and open discussions with their doctors.”

A similar amendment narrowly missed passing in the House of Representatives in April. Last year the same amendment failed to make it out of the Senate committee, so it appears there is some progress on the issue.

Ironically, medical cannabis is available to veterans in Canada, a fact not lost on one former veteran working to change the landscape in the United States.

“Canada provides medical marijuana to its veterans for free, it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Michael Krawitz, Executive Director of the Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. “I’ve talked to government officials about this. They’re perplexed. They don’t offer anything but a shrug of the shoulders and sympathy.” Krawitz said those in the Executive branch of government appear the most roadblocked. He credited legislators at the federal and state levels with trying to move laws forward.

Krawitz, an Air Force veteran who served 1981-1986, is among those working to not only change laws in the U.S., but to include more and more war-related issues on the list of those already included on states’ lists, like PTSD and Gulf-War Syndrome.

An increasing number of studies have emerged demonstrating cannabis to be effective in treatment of PTSD. A clinical trial in New Mexico published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs showed that smoking cannabis resulted in PTSD symptom reduction in some patients. Patients in the sample reported an average of 75 percent reduction in all three areas of PTSD symptoms (re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal) while using cannabis, yet researchers still call for more studies.

“Many PTSD patients report symptom reduction with cannabis, and a clinical trial needs to be done to see what proportion and what kind of PTSD patients benefit, with either cannabis or the main active ingredients of cannabis,” said Dr. George Greer, one of the researchers.

Another study, done by Nachshon Korem and Irit Akirav of the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa in September 2014, and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, concluded that administering cannabinoids soon after a traumatic event can prevent PTSD-like symptoms in rats.

“The importance of this study is that it contributes to the understanding of the brain basis of the positive effect cannabis has on PTSD, and thus supports the necessity to perform human trials to examine potential ways to prevent the development of PTSD and anxiety disorders in response to a traumatic event,” Korem and Akirav said.

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