A dose of change

The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act could offer alternatives to opioid use among vets

Veterans from all over Northern California pose at a September Weed for Warriors Porject meeting in Oakland.

Veterans from all over Northern California pose at a September Weed for Warriors Porject meeting in Oakland.

Photo courtesy of the weed for warriors project

With California legalizing recreational marijuana in January, it’s no surprise that there would be new laws introduced with it. City and state laws now recognize that, with cannabis hitting the market legally, there are ways of studying its effects on individuals in the advent of the growing opioid epidemic.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 630,000 people died from drug overdoses between 1999 and 2016. And while several factors make the numbers difficult to calculate, a 2011 study of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ system by the National Center for Biotechnology Information discovered that veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than nonveterans.

But a new bill introduced in September looks to investigate this further by offering cannabis as a viable treatment for common ailments among veterans like chronic pain and PTSD while cutting opioid prescriptions.

Senators Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) penned the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, a bill that will allow veterans to speak to their physicians at the VA about medical marijuana use without worry of losing their benefits. Marijuana is still federally illegal and is classified as a Schedule I substance, alongside other known killers including bath salts and heroin. The bill also allows vets to use, possess and even transport medical cannabis.

Still, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve of marijuana as a safe and effective drug, leaving the VA with no choice but to administer FDA-approved medications. With that, the VA physicians can’t recommend medical cannabis in any form whether it’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component found in marijuana products, or cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive component of marijuana that’s said to help with inflammation, pain and insomnia.

For veterans who seek alternative medications to opioids and a listening ear, there are support groups like the Weed for Warriors Project, a nonprofit organization with 14 chapters from Sacramento to Miami that advocate for marijuana usage on behalf of veterans with VA benefits.

As a former U.S. Marine and the founder of the Weed for Warriors Project, Kevin Richardson recalls his own struggles with prescribed medications.

“I had 17 different prescriptions. A lot of the meds just make it where life’s kind of like blah,” Richardson said. “Now I use cannabis and that’s it, and it helps me wind down at nighttime or relax versus having to take so many pills [that] I forgot how to eat a bowl of cereal.”

The Safe Harbor Act states that “almost 60 percent of veterans returning from serving in the Armed Forces in the Middle East,” and more than 50 percent of older veterans who use the VA’s health care system live with some form of chronic pain. In order to treat these ailments, many of which are psychological, the VA prescribes a litany of pills, jokingly referred to as a pharmaceutical cocktail by many veterans. This capsule concoction includes medications like Depakote (treats seizures), Hydroxyzine (treats anxiety), Quetiapine (treats psychological disorders), Trazodone (treats depression) and the list continues. Most pills treat the same ailments because it’s difficult to isolate what hurts where and instead of investigating alternative treatment methods, many veterans believe the VA is just numbing their lives.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that medical marijuana can treat issues related to HIV/AIDS, inflammation, mental disorders, multiple sclerosis, seizures, and a vast array of other health problems, including chronic pain and PTSD. Even though it’s classified as a Schedule I substance, veterans won’t be denied VA benefits because of marijuana usage if the Safe Harbor Act is passed. As it stands now, the bill was read twice and is referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

However, in many instances, VA physicians won’t even recommend or discuss marijuana with its patients, with many vets believing the VA just isn’t equipped to talk about cannabis as a possible alternative to prescription pills, many of which are automatically shipped to veterans’ houses.

“Modern medicine’s not teaching cannabis, so anytime I’ve talked to the doctors, [they tell me] ’cannabis is great for the short-term, but we want to give you something that chemically alters your brain,’” Richardson told SN&R.

Though the prescriptions administered by the VA are refilled for free, some veterans said they spend a couple hundred dollars a month, while others spend a couple hundred dollars a week, on medical marijuana alone.

While a number of vets are optimistic about the Safe Harbor Act’s intention to help their medical needs and shift the conversations about cannabis in a positive direction, many are more frank and believe it won’t change a damn thing.

Sean Kiernan is one of them. A former specialist in the U.S. Army and president of the Weed for Warriors Project, Kiernan survived a suicide attempt in 2011 related to his struggles with PTSD. For him, this new bill is simply more marijuana policy.

“Nothing pragmatically is going to change. We’ve had a bill that passed by both the Senate and the House in Congress for that past two years, and it magically disappeared for reconciliation,” Kiernan said. “We’re hopeful [about this bill]. It’s wonderful news, but none of these bills go [further] than doctors being able to prescribe cannabis to veterans, which is a huge home run symbolically. But it doesn’t do anything about getting the medication in the hands of the veterans.”

Senators Nelson and Schatz didn’t respond in time for print deadline.