Medical Marijuana for our Veterans: WE Need to do More

We do not support our government blocking access to medical cannabis
We do not support our government blocking access to medical cannabis

Veterans Day is an opportunity for us to honor those who bravely served the United States. It is also a time when we should ask ourselves what we can do to help those who risk (or risked) their lives to keep us safe. Unfortunately, we fall short when it comes to addressing the mental health of our Veterans. According to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), almost 30 percent of military veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Research indicates marijuana effectively treats PTSD, yet many Veterans do not have access to medical marijuana. Vets deserve better when it comes to medical marijuana.

Multiple studies indicate marijuana can reduce symptoms of PTSD. The medical journal Neuropsychopharmacology reported that administering synthetic cannabinoids to rats after a traumatic event can prevent symptoms of PTSD by triggering changes in areas of the brain associated with forming and holding memories. The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs documented a study where marijuana significantly reduced the symptoms of patients with PTSD. This study measured the frequency and intensity of traumatic experiences in patients. Those treated with marijuana reported a 75 percent reduction in symptoms.

Even the federal government has taken note of marijuana’s potential in treating PTSD. Just yesterday, the Senate approved a funding bill that allows VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states where it is legal. Previously, the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved the Veterans Equal Access Amendment. The VA, which the federal government controls, has stigmatized the use of medical marijuana to a point where VA physicians were not even willing to discuss medical marijuana as an option for suffering Veterans, even in states with legalized marijuana. This change in legislation should allow for greater access to medical marijuana for Veterans.

It is not just the federal government grappling with whether to list PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. Both Colorado and Washington — states that have legalized marijuana for recreational and medical use — recently considered this issue. In July, the Colorado Board of Health voted against adding PTSD as a qualifying medical condition. At that same hearing, a dozen Veterans testified about the success of marijuana for treating PTSD, some even stating that it had saved their lives. Several patients, including Veterans, sued the Board over its decision.

Patients in Washington have fared better. On July 24, Senate Bill 5052 (SB 5052) went into effect, adding both PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) to the list of approved medical conditions for cannabis. This classification is important even in a state with legal recreational marijuana. Under SB 5052 and its companion, House Bill 2136 (HB 2136), patients may purchase medical marijuana tax-free. Now, those suffering from PTSD or TBI may qualify for this program. Though Washington’s addition of PTSD and TBI should be celebrated, the legislation also has its flaws.

Washington has failed to provide many Veterans with a place to legally consume marijuana. I-502 prohibits public consumption of marijuana. HB 2136 made these restrictions broader by making it a felony to allow consumption in any place of business. The lack of a public place for consumption is relevant for Veterans simply because there are roughly 1,300 homeless Veterans in Washington State, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

In one legislative session, Washington both acknowledged marijuana’s potential as a medicine to treat PTSD while making it nearly impossible for 1,300 homeless Veterans to access that medicine without breaking the law. Washington has failed its homeless Veterans, who would benefit from an effective treatment for PTSD.

Lack of access to medical marijuana is only one issue Veterans face. However, considering the potential medical marijuana has shown for treating PTSD, this issue is significant. Recent legislation allows more Veterans to access medical marijuana, but we should always be asking whether that is enough. Advocating for broader access to medical marijuana is one way for us to help our Veterans.