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New Restrictions Threaten Veterans’ Access to Cannabis

byeearlenbaughMay 13, 20186 minutes

Over the last few decades, cannabis has become more accessible than ever. Scientific research shows a multitude of medical uses for the plant, and legal changes have allowed licensed and regulated clinics to provide this medicine to qualified Canadian citizens. While legalizing medical cannabis was an important step for all Canadians, this change has proven to be especially crucial for veterans, who are often left suffering from a wide range of medical conditions after their service is over.

As access to medical marijuana has opened up, more and more veterans are turning to this natural option for their medicinal needs. Many even say it’s been a lifesaving treatment for them. While Canada has been quite progressive in its policy of covering the cost of medicinal cannabis for veterans, new restrictions now threaten veterans’ access to this important medicine.

How Cannabis Helps Veterans

As cannabis becomes more and more accessible, use by veterans has spiked—and it’s not at all that surprising. Cannabis has been shown to help with a wide variety of conditions that affect veterans at higher rates such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

One of the most common reasons that people consume cannabis is for pain relief, and this is no different for veterans. A recent clinical review of existing data on marijuana for pain relief found that cannabis is fairly effective at reducing or relieving chronic pain.

The anecdotal evidence makes a slightly stronger argument. HelloMD conducted a study of nearly 3,000 patients and found that 81% of cannabis patients surveyed reported that cannabis is more effective at reducing their pain than opiates are.

This is important to keep in mind for veterans who suffer more from chronic pain on average than most citizens do. Of all Canadian veterans, 41% report being in constant chronic pain. An additional 23% report suffering from intermittent chronic pain.

Whatever the underlying conditions may be, pain features prominently in veteran life. And if the opiate crisis has taught us anything, it’s that pain is difficult to treat without a range of negative side effects. Still, cannabis offers exactly what’s needed: a non-addictive pain reliever that has minimal side effects and is still effective at relieving the unending suffering of chronic pain.

Marijuana for Veterans’ Mental Health

Veterans also suffer from higher levels of anxiety and mood disorders such as depression and PTSD. While the research on cannabis and PTSD is still limited, initial small studies and anecdotal reports suggest cannabis helps many PTSD sufferers with few negative side effects. Veterans with PTSD report that cannabis reduces their anxiety, combats their insomnia and simply helps them to cope with returning to civilian life.

RELATED: HOW DO MENTAL-HEALTH PROFESSIONALS VIEW MARIJUANA?

This makes sense when you consider the studies on cannabis and anxiety, which show that cannabis is able to blunt stress reactions. Usually, stress causes our system to flood with cortisol, the chemical that corresponds to our feelings of extreme stress and anxiety.

When something triggers a stress reaction, such as when veterans have a memory of combat, the human body responds with a flood of cortisol and a corresponding feeling of panic. However, in lab studies, those consuming cannabis had diminished cortisol responses in reaction to stressors. They also reported feeling less anxiety.

This kind of anxiety relief could understandably be helpful for someone dealing with the symptoms of PTSD. Many veterans describe similar results when treating their PTSD with cannabis. For those on the brink of suicide, these results can literally be lifesaving.

One Canadian Veteran’s Medical Marijuana Story

Just ask Shauna Davies, a 10-year Canadian military veteran. Davies recently shared in an open letter that her husband, Cyriaque, has battled with PTSD for over a decade since returning from active duty in Afghanistan. According to Shauna, cannabis has been the one thing that’s helped him manage his condition.

The conventional pharmaceuticals Cyriaque was first prescribed didn’t seem to help. Shauna describes their effects as a chemical lobotomy and points out that many are known to cause suicidal behavior. Unfortunately, this was a side effect that her husband experienced on multiple occasions.

"I have helped my own husband from the brink after four suicide attempts, all of which were proven to be directly caused by the medication interactions," she says. "In using medical cannabis, my husband has been able to cease using dangerous pharmaceutical medications. And he is far from alone."

VAC Cuts Cannabis Coverage to Save Costs

Cyriaque, along with many other Canadian veterans, have been able to access their lifesaving marijuana treatment through Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC). It’s clear that the cannabis options for veterans are better in Canada than they are in most countries. The government not only allows its veterans to use cannabis as a medicine, it actually covers the cost of the plant.

But these costs have escalated as more veterans are gaining access to medical cannabis programs. And now VAC is pulling back on its support of medicinal marijuana in an effort to balance its budget. Veterans who were previously covered for cannabis use, up to 10 grams a day, will now be restricted to only 3 grams per day, at a maximum price of $8.50 per gram. Or at least, that’s all the VAC will cover financially.

Unfortunately, this is far less than what many veterans currently require to meet their needs. While there’s a procedure to apply to be covered for a higher amount of daily cannabis, many fear that not everyone who applies will be approved, and that this new policy will leave veterans without the funds to cover their basic medicine. For those with PTSD or other conditions that require higher than average amounts of cannabis, the change may put them back in the difficult situation they found themselves in before discovering marijuana as effective medicine.

Shauna Davies’ husband is one such veteran, and she worries that the change will have immediate negative effects on her family. "This is life and death, and the consequences will be devastating,” she says in an open letter pleading with legislators not to make these cuts. “I finally have my husband back. My children finally have their daddy back. I beg you not to take him away from us again."

It’s hard to say what will happen with cannabis and Canada’s vets, but advocates are already protesting the new changes. The VAC argues that there’s insufficient research about marijuana’s efficacy and that the plant’s increasing costs make covering all cannabis for veterans unviable.

Meanwhile, the veterans who rely on this medicine oppose the VAC’s decision, pointing to their personal successes. Military vets also call attention to the fact that the pharmaceutical alternatives to cannabis are far more costly—when it comes to money and lives.

While veterans in Canada are allowed to use this life-saving medicine, the bad news is that some may not be able to afford it. One can only hope that this crucial element in their health care will be restored before more lives are lost.

Photo credit: Brian Burger

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