It’s a well-known fact that United States veterans experience conditions like PTSD, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at a higher rate than the national average. It’s also clearer than ever that medical marijuana has become a valuable—and even life-saving—option to treat the symptoms related to these conditions.
Unfortunately, doctors working with United States veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs are prohibited from recommending medical marijuana to their patients, despite pleas from veterans themselves and political support on both sides of the aisle.
At North Carolina Marijuana Card, we value the sacrifice our vets have made, and we think that the accessibility of effective treatments for conditions most prevalent among those who have served should be a top priority.
How Can Medical Marijuana Help Veterans?
Medical marijuana is becoming the preferred treatment for PTSD, chronic pain, traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among many veterans, and it may be useful in treating opioid use disorder as well.
Using Medical Marijuana to Treat PTSD
Almost 13% of US veterans will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. This is nearly double the rate of civilians. Unfortunately, PTSD is difficult to treat, due to the complicated mix of physical and psychological symptoms.
Cannabis works with the body’s own endocannabinoid system to restore homeostasis and support balance, physically and mentally. A 2017 study indicated that cannabis has the potential to blunt stress reactivity, which could be key to helping vets living with PTSD stay calm in a circumstance of perceived threat.
Reliving a traumatic event as if it is happening in the present is a hallmark symptom of PTSD. It’s also one of the most difficult to treat. A 2020 study showed that THC may reduce the intensity of frightening memories, thereby allowing patients to reintegrate their memories in a more manageable way.
The compelling evidence for cannabis as an effective treatment for PTSD becomes undeniable with a 2020 study carried out by a number of universities, showing that patients who used marijuana over the course of one year were 2.5 times more likely to recover.
Medical Marijuana for Chronic Pain
Veterans experience more chronic pain, at a higher rate of severity, than the general population. The most common treatment options for chronic pain include NSAIDS and opioids, both of which can lead to other complications and come with unwanted side effects.
Long-term NSAID use can result in heart, kidney and liver disease. Opioids are highly addictive, and have led to one of the biggest national health crises in our history. Veterans are more susceptible to opioid use disorder; and they are more likely to underestimate their risk for overdose, making opioid use even more dangerous.
Chronic pain is the most common diagnosis for medical marijuana patients, and it’s because cannabis helps treat pain on a number of levels. Medical marijuana has an analgesic effect, it is a favorite among patients living with muscle spasms and nerve pain, and cannabis has been shown to serve as an anti-inflammatory in some patients.
In addition to having properties that can relieve nearly every kind of pain, many patients appreciate the fact that medical marijuana helps them get a good night’s sleep—a most elusive luxury for those who are living with chronic pain.
Medical Marijuana for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)
A 2017 study noted that TBI is the “signature” injury of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Veterans are exposed to blasts, falls, and blows to the head, which leads to TBI. Repeated head injuries often lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Some may be surprised to learn that medical marijuana can be exactly what the doctor ordered to treat symptoms related to these conditions, but the common myth that marijuana kills brain cells couldn’t be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, marijuana is known to have neuroprotective properties, and a 2014 study found that subjects who had used cannabis were more likely to survive severe, potentially fatal TBIs.
Medical Marijuana May Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder
Due to the higher rates of chronic pain that veterans experience, combined with a variety of psychological factors that are unique to this population, opioid use disorder is another condition prevalent among former service members.
One way that medical marijuana may prevent opioid use disorder is by reducing the need for opioids in the first place. A 2020 study indicated that between 30 and 60 percent of patients were able to completely substitute marijuana for opioids to treat their chronic pain. Those that used cannabis in conjunction with opioids, saw up to a 75 percent reduction in opioid dosage.
Opioid use disorder has a tendency to sneak up on its victims, but there is still hope for those who develop OUD. Some states have approved the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of OUD, and one recent study indicated that those who used cannabis as part of their treatment plan experienced a reduction of opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Why Can’t VA Doctors Recommend Medical Marijuana for Veterans?
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a Federal agency, and it therefore must adhere to Federal laws. Marijuana and products containing THC are still considered Schedule I controlled substances, which means that they are Federally illegal.
VA doctors’ hands are tied. Even if they know that medical marijuana would be the best course of treatment for their patients, they are not able to make that recommendation. This is a tragic situation, and the VA has been tiptoeing around it for years now.
Department of Veterans Affairs Doctors Are Encouraged to Talk to Patients Who Legally Use Marijuana to Treat Their Symptoms
Thirty-six states have a medical marijuana program in place, and these states usually list conditions most common among veterans as qualifying for treatment with cannabis. This means that even if a veteran can’t get a recommendation for medical marijuana from their VA doctor, they can often still legally get access to medicinal cannabis.
When a VA patient is legally using medical marijuana to treat their symptoms according to state laws, then VA doctors are required to make note and discuss the patient’s cannabis use. However, these doctors and other health practitioners may have limited, out-dated, or inaccurate information related to using marijuana medically, and therefore might still not be able to provide the support our veterans want.
Veterans Won’t Lose Their Benefits for Legally Participating in a State’s Medical Marijuana Program
Some veterans who could benefit from medical marijuana for symptom management may be hesitant to give it a try despite living in a state with a legal program. This is because of the belief that using marijuana will result in a loss of benefits. Incarceration, committing a felony, and multiple foreclosures can all lead to various benefits being stripped away, but using marijuana is not on that list.
United States veterans can rest assured that using medical marijuana will not cause them to lose their disability, education, retirement, medical or other benefits due to them.
Several Bipartisan Bills Introduced Supporting Veterans Using Cannabis—VA Resists
Though the evidence is mounting for cannabis being an effective treatment with conditions that affect veterans most, the VA seems to be stonewalling research that could literally mean life or death for the very people it serves. VA representatives have continuously testified against bills that would require the department to conduct investigations into the efficacy of medical marijuana among veteran populations.
The political situation surrounding cannabis research is complicated, but one consistent argument the VA offers for resisting investigation on veteran populations is that there isn’t enough research into the potential adverse effects of marijuana. This circular way of creating policy shuts down any progress with medical marijuana to treat common veteran conditions. Even when the FDA approves a study, the DEA will deny it based on its Schedule I status.
Get Your North Carolina Marijuana Card
North Carolina is working to pass a comprehensive medical marijuana program that will allow patients the right to use cannabis as a medicine without legal repercussions.
It’s our hope that soon patients will be able to apply for a medical marijuana card and begin receiving the compassionate treatment that they deserve.
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