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Research from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and University of British Columbia determined that those who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but don’t use medical cannabis are far more likely to suffer from severe depression and suicidal thoughts than those who had used medical cannabis over the past year. 

Yet because cannabis is still listed as a Schedule I drug in the United States, millions of veterans who rely solely on their VA (Veterans Administration) healthcare benefits are not able to access cannabis treatment for their PTSD, even in states where cannabis is legalized. 

The VA’s website still labels cannabis as harmful to veterans stating that cannabis “use for medical conditions is an issue of growing concern.” It continues “there is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD. In fact, research suggests that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD.” 

What is the current situation for veterans suffering with PTSD?

PTSD is a psychiatric condition that is linked to surviving or witnessing a traumatic life event. The symptoms can include agitation, flashbacks, impaired concentration and memory, insomnia and nightmares and can also increase the risk of substance abuse, depression and suicide. 

Over 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience post-traumatic stress or depression, according to the VA. The current healthcare system isn’t equipped to manage and treat the high amounts of psychological and physical wounds of veterans. The current methods of treating an illness like PTSD are quite limited and often result in little to no improvements and can have devastating side effects. 

Conventional treatments for PTSD include anti-depressant, antipsychotic medication and psychological treatments such as Cognitive Processing Therapy or 1-to-1 family therapy. 

The concoction of drugs generally has little effect, in fact according to the Psychiatric Times, ‘many patients remain symptomatic and functionally impared despite standard treatments and require alternative interventions.’ This leads to veterans seeking alternative treatment methods, such as medical cannabis. 

A 2017 study revealed that one-in-five veterans are already using cannabis to self-medicate a mental or physical condition. It also found that 82 percent of veterans are in favor of legalizing medical cannabis. 

With obvious health benefits and strong support from those actually affected by the illness, why are veterans still restricted from accessing medical cannabis? 

So why won’t the VA provide medical cannabis to veterans? 

Why is it that the VA refuses to accept the fact that medical cannabis may help millions of affected veterans across America? 

Well, the biggest reason is the fact that cannabis is still listed as a schedule I drug under federal law. This restricts the VA from conducting research into cannabis as it is restricted under federal law and the VA is a federal Cabinet-level agency. This leaves the department to continue operating under the line of reasoning that cannabis has “no acceptable medical use [and a] high potential for abuse.” 

The director of media relations at the VA, stated that her agency is “committed to improving treatment options for veterans and supports research into potential treatment options that may prove valuable.” 

However, this would “involve interactions with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).” 

Former VA secretary, Dr. David Shulkin stated that “We can do research at the VA, but unfortunately the barriers and bureaucracy you have to go through are lengthy and painful,” he continued “I can now more effectively articulate the view that Congress is the most likely player to help in streamlining research. And yes, it needs to be done.” 

Members of Congress have in fact attempted to allow cannabis access to veterans with no success. Below are a few of the bills that have found no success:

  • The Veterans Equal Access: This would allow VA health practitioners to recommend medical cannabis as a treatment option for veteran patients and allow them to fill out necessary paperwork to enroll them into state cannabis programs. 
  • VA Medicinal Research Act: To direct the Secretary of the VA to conduct clinical trials looking at the effects of cannabis on certain conditions like PTSD or chronic pain.
  • Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbour Act: This would allow veterans to use, possess or transport cannabis under applicable state laws. 

What benefits come from treating PTSD with cannabis 

A study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology used data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health to see if cannabis-use modified PTSD or severe depression. 

It found that those with PTSD who didn’t use cannabis increased the risk of major depressive episodes among Canadians by roughly seven times and suicidal thoughts by roughly five times. 

But why?

Well, a leading theory is that our bodies naturally produce molecules called endogenous cannabinoids that fit into special cannabinoid receptors within the brain and body. The endocannabinoid system works to stabilize bodily processes, like regulating the part of the brain that tends to be affected by traumatic experiences. 

Brain imaging research revealed that patients with PTSD have an abundance of cannabinoid receptors however lacked endogenous cannabinoids to lock into them. The role medical cannabis could have is to supplement the body with the plant-based cannabinoid like THC which might help the brain processes function normally. 

After categorising cannabis users into “no use,” “low risk use” and “high-risk use” the studies findings suggested that the indicators of mental health were improved when individuals were low-risk cannabis users. 

Earlier in the year, researchers also completed the first clinical trial of smoked cannabis for PTSD in veterans where 76 veterans were enrolled and treated. The trial was the first FDA-approved trial examining the effects of THC and CBD on the symptoms of PTSD in war veterans and took a decade to complete. 

The results are yet to be released in a peer-reviewed biomedical journal before the end of the year. It will be interesting to see the findings and if there is a change in medical cannabis access for veterans. 

Strong support for veteran access to cannabis 

While federal roadblocks means the prospect of veteran’s access to cannabis from the VA looks bleak, there is strong support from other groups across America. 

The Veterans Cannabis Project is one such supporter, the project is fighting to help veterans gain access to cannabis. As it states on their website, “Our message is a simple one: Medical cannabis saves lives, and veterans deserve full, legal access.” 

The groups mission is to advocate on behalf of veterans cannabis access, educate policy makers and the public about the benefits cannabis could have for veterans and support veterans with the knowledge they need to understand the benefits of cannabis. 

Another group advocating for veteran cannabis access is the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) service organization for post 9/11 war veterans. 

Lindsay Rodman, executive vice president of communications and legal strategy at IAVA believes the VA’s claims of not being allowed to do research are false and that “They just have to coordinate with other agencies. [They should] just do it.” 

Thousands of veterans are suffering from a lack of effective treatments for PTSD and the crazy thing is, we have a solution, they’re just not allowed to use it. We owe it to the ones who served the nation, to allow them access to a plant that can help give a better quality of life to the ones who risked theirs. 

Medical cannabis is not, and should not, be a political issue. The longer it is, the more lives will be affected and the further away we will travel from an effective medical solution for veterans and the wider population. 

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