Why Veterans Need Access to Medical Marijuana [Opinion]

Our troops serve an important purpose. They protect our resources, our lands and ensure that we enjoy the continued freedoms guaranteed by our forefathers. However, many of our troops, once out of active duty often face many ongoing challenges.

These challenges often include mental and physical trauma sustained during tours and prolonged military confrontations. The stress of disparate traumas can emerge in the form of chronic pain and PTSD. Veterans who have served in the United States military have limited access to healthcare options to address these issues.

Small research studies have shown that cannabis may have some positive interactions with antidepressants and may also mitigate other physical ailments. However, there are many impediments to veterans having full legal access to medical cannabis.

Gaining Full Legal Access to Medical Cannabis for Veterans: The Main Issues

First, the way in which marijuana is defined in many states can hinder a veteran receiving cannabis for their conditions. In most states across the U.S. for example, most illegal substances are given distinct classifications. These classifications denote the possible harm each substance can do and often determines the legal penalty for using or possessing cannabis.

There are currently five classifications or distinctions that have been granted by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I. Drugs that are given this distinction are typically considered to be drugs that have a high potential for abuse and have no current or definitive accepted medical use. Cannabis has been scheduled with the likes of heroin and methamphetamine, substances that have been proven to have high rates of addiction and detrimental health effects.

Despite promising limited studies that indicate that cannabis and cannabis-related products have little addictive potential, lawmakers have maintained the course in keeping cannabis designated as a Schedule I substance in most states. In addition, this restriction is an impediment to wider research that could improve the science behind cannabis. Without official government approval, research programs cannot obtain government grants and funding for studies that include cannabis.

Proponents of cannabis access cannot lobby for its removal from the Scheduling without the backing of science and in-depth research cannot commence without cannabis’ being taken from its current classification. It is a never-ending cycle of law versus scientific inquiry.

The second issue in veterans gaining full and unrestricted legal access to medical cannabis is popular opinion. Though most attitudes are changing in regards to cannabis and its use, wider acceptance is needed for it become more mainstream. The stigma against cannabis first began in earnest in the late 1930s with the release of the propaganda film Reefer Madness.

This film was filled with anti-cannabis rhetoric and had hints of xenophobia. In fact, opponents of cannabis often used the word “marijuana,” (which was the Spanish term for cannabis employed by Mexican immigrants). The term underscored what many felt was the “un-Americanness” of cannabis.

Cannabis took on an entirely new dimension, and anti-cannabis sentiment swelled, it became known as “demon weed,” and “locoweed.”  As a consequence, Americans became convinced this was a new, national menace. Cannabis had before then been seen as nothing extraordinary, with early settlers even using it to create fabric and manufacturers using it in medicines that were sold widely in stores.

Cannabis also has been touted as a major concern by modern-day lawmakers. This is due in part to lobbyists from major tobacco and beer companies that have pushed back against its legalization. Major studies have proven that both tobacco and alcohol are much more concerning to Americans general health.

Cigarettes and alcohol have inflated the cost of healthcare with patients suffering from health issues like lung cancer, COPD and cirrhosis of the liver, all complications that can arise from smoking and alcohol use.

It has been reported that many of our political figures have received donations and contributions from groups financed by big tobacco and alcohol. Many of these politicians have in turn spurned positive debates on cannabis legislation.

In addition to current stigma and legislation, the public is unaware of how varied cannabis use can be. Some studies show that many people oppose cannabis use because they fear the smell of cannabis in public. However, cannabis can be used in a variety of ways. It not only can be smoked, but it can also be vaped, baked into cookies, pies and other products, taken as a pill or even sublingually.

Why Cannabis May Be Important for Veterans

Many veterans hail from high-stress situations in the military, up to and including active combat. This poses unique challenges to health care providers and relief can often elude patients using traditional methods.

Many veterans suffer from a host of psychological issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a common affliction among many veterans. This condition often includes flashbacks to moments of danger, feelings of extreme anxiety and paranoia, constant jitters and the need to fidget, and moments of intense anger and confusion.

PTSD is often treated by a combination of therapies, including psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and antidepressants. Antidepressants have become the mainstay for many psychological problems, but their use has been criticized as ineffective or overrepresented. Cannabis has shown as a promising alternative to antidepressants.

Antidepressants often work by increasing the levels of certain chemicals in the brain. Many of these chemicals act as mood or behavioral influencers. Studies indicate that while antidepressants can alleviate some symptoms of PTSD, they are not always effective in veterans that are experiencing a psychological decline.

In some smaller studies, cannabis has been shown to amplify the effects of antidepressants, causing a decrease or reverse in symptoms. Cannabis may also be effective in decreasing tension and increasing better sleep patterns, often factors in those who suffer from PTSD.

Veterans who exhibit PTSD often have access to limited healthcare networks. Doctors and clinics may be out of reach for months on end due to the cost and the burden of care. During this time veterans and their families may find themselves at a loss and may need alternatives to traditional therapeutic techniques. By allowing full legal access to cannabis, veterans may be able to decrease their time in between appointments and find some relief for their symptoms.

In addition to PTSD, many veterans suffer from a host physical maladies, including phantom limb syndrome. Veteran amputees often have chronic pain that cannot be alleviated by prescription medications. Many of these medications work by decreasing or blocking pain signals from impulses that originate from certain areas of the body. However, when those areas of the body no longer exist, amputees are left with a “pain memory.”

Veteran amputees have described feeling the injury as if it is still there. Legs and arms being crushed under a tank or ripped apart during enemy gunfire may be hard-wired into the brain. Studies have shown that many areas of the brain that were connected to the lost limb are as active as they were before the injury.

This “brain map” is flawed and no longer represents what the body is like in its current state. Therefore, any attempts at relieving the pain through painkillers such as codeine and morphine may not only be ineffective but addictive.

Veterans who come back from combat with amputee pain can be especially vulnerable to addiction. Prescription drugs have fueled the current opioid crisis, and thousands of veterans are falling into heavy opioid abuse and are risking their lives and health.

Anecdotal evidence and some studies have indicated that cannabis can be an option for veterans seeking relief from phantom limb pain. In some cases, researchers believe that cannabis may even help to rewire the brain. This is an important step in helping how amputees experience phantom limb pain.

By reworking the ways in which brain pathways are established, many amputees can find relief from chronic pain. Amputees that use cannabis under a health professional’s care have reported the ability to find and retain work, rebuild relationships and have higher rates of happiness and satisfaction.

Ways the Public Can Help Veterans Gain Access to Medical Cannabis

  • Support local veterans groups: There are many groups that support veterans and their families. Many of these groups are in support of medical cannabis use among veterans as a viable alternative or supplement to traditional therapies.

These programs rely on the support of the public in keeping their programs active for veterans who need assistance. By donating time and money, the public can help veterans who may not be able to get assistance through more mainstream government programs.

  • Write in support of legalization: It is important for the public to emphasize their support by writing congressmen and women about the importance of legalizing medical cannabis. Mounting public pressure has been proven to change the way our political officials vote while in office. Writing a letter or calling their offices to show that the public is behind our veterans and their need for access.

Current legislation proposals include the Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, and the Veterans Equal Access Act.

The Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act would allow VA (Veterans’ Affairs) doctors and researchers to conduct studies on the efficacy of cannabis and its use and allow veterans to have access to cannabis programs in areas where cannabis has been legalized.

The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act would ensure that the VA would conduct a full and complete study of cannabis and how it can help veterans who suffer from chronic pain and symptoms of PTSD. And finally, the Veterans Equal Access Act would give VA doctors the ability to advise veterans in their use of medical cannabis through a sanctioned state medical cannabis program.

  • Become educated: People must become more knowledgeable about how cannabis has been used in the past and how it continues to help many people today. By changing the perspective on cannabis, the public can open the door to more in-depth research and less restrictive policies on its use and the penalization of users.
  • Be open to discussion: Engaging in open and honest discussion is can remove the stigma associated with cannabis use. Users of cannabis have often been defined in stereotypical ways. However, many of them are veterans who are fathers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, friends and colleagues.

By creating an environment where people can discuss their ideas, experiences, and fears in regards to cannabis use, there can be proactive engagement with how veterans can be fully supported.

Why Veterans Deserve Full Legal Access to Medical Cannabis: Conclusion

Our veterans have served our country in admirable ways. Their contributions should not go unnoticed. By supporting veterans having full and legal access to medical cannabis, the public recognizes that their sacrifices are important. Less restrictive policies and expanded research can help researchers find new and inventive ways to utilize cannabis’ properties for veterans. This can benefit not only veterans but the public at large.

Veterans should be given a wider array of treatment options and thus given more autonomy for the direction and end goal of their treatments. Many of them suffer from constant and debilitating pain and anxiety disorders such as PTSD.

Standard therapies that use anti-depressants and opioids are contributing to a larger problem of addiction. Changing the ways that cannabis is classed, how it is viewed and how it can be accessed may go a long way in helping to stem the tide of veteran opioid and drug abuse in the United States.

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