Veteran PTSD - The Cannabis Cure

Updated: May 13

Marijuana Use for PTSD Among Veterans


The use of Marijuana for medical conditions is an issue of growing concern. Many Veterans use marijuana to reduce symptoms of PTSD, and many states specifically approve medical marijuana for PTSD. However, research has not been conducted on the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana for PTSD. There is no evidence currently that suggests marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD. This research indicates that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD.


Epidemiology


Marijuana use has increased over the past decade. In 2013, a study found that 19.8 million people reported using marijuana in the past month, with 8.1 million using it almost every day (1). Daily use has increased by 60% in the prior decade (1). Several factors are connected with increased risk of marijuana use, involving diagnosis of PTSD (2), social anxiety disorder (3), other substance use, mainly through youth (4), and peer substance abuse (5).


Cannabis Use Disorders among Veterans Using VA Health Care


There have currently been no studies of marijuana use conducted on the overall Veteran population. The data we have gathered comes from Veterans using VA health care, who may not represent the Veteran population overall. When considering this subset of veterans seen in the VA health care with co-existent of substance use disorders (SUD) and PTSD, cannabis use disorder has been the most diagnosed SUD since 2009. Veterans in the VA with PTSD and SUD diagnosed with cannabis use disorder increased from 13.0% in FY 2002 to 22.7% in FY 2014. As of FY 2014, more than 40,000 Veterans with PTSD and SUD are seen in VA diagnosed with cannabis use disorder.


People in 33 States can use medical Marijuana. Why Haven't Veterans Been able to Use It for PTSD?


Dogs have been prescribed medical marijuana, but veterans still cannot get the drug from the Veterans Affairs.


  • Several Veterans groups are working on getting medical marijuana approved as a form of treatment for PTSD.

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) still refuses to provide marijuana to veterans because it is listed as a Schedule I drug.

  • Many Veterans groups want to get that designation changed and have more research conducted on the benefits of medical marijuana.


Doug Distaso served his nation in the United States Air Force for 21 years.


He had the opportunity to command joint aviation, maintenance, and support personnel globally and served as the primary legislative affairs lead for two U.S. Special Operations Command leaders.


However, after an Air Force plane accident left Distaso with a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain, he was given more than a dozen prescription medications by doctors at the VA.


"I was taking everything from opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and sleeping pills," Distaso stated. "Like countless other veterans, the cocktail of drugs that I was prescribed quickly threw my life into a turmoil, affecting my ability to perform at work, while straining my relationships at home."


Distaso states that living his life in a prescription drug-induced, zombie-like state left his wife and family begging with him on Christmas morning to come back to them.


"What brought me back to my family and career was medical cannabis. Cannabis helped me get off the pills and regain control of every facet of my life," Distaso said.


Unfortunately, for millions of veterans who depend solely on their VA healthcare benefits, federal law ties their VA doctors' hands. It harshly denies these veterans access to needed medical cannabis as a treatment option.


Distaso currently works for his fellow veterans as the Veterans Cannabis Project founder, which advocates for veterans' cannabis access, education to policymakers, and support for veterans seeking treatment options beyond the opiates and other prescriptive and addictive drugs they obtain from the VA.


It is time for Congress to approve the VA to research the effects of cannabis on familiar veterans' health issues and allow doctors at the VA to recommend and assist veterans in accessing medical cannabis.


The VA denial of cannabis


Cannabis use is still branded as harmful to veterans on the VA's website.


"Cannabis use for medical disorders is an issue of growing concern," the VA states.


Cannabis also remains on the Schedule I list under the Controlled Substances Act, the same as heroin.


According to the VA website, "measured studies have not been fully conducted to evaluate the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana for PTSD. Thus, no proper evidence that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD has been collected."


Conversely, the tide has turned nationally in terms of the attitude toward marijuana, especially for medicinal purposes.


Despite the unattainability of medicinal marijuana at the VA, veterans nationally are using cannabis to deal with their PTSD symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.


Recent scientific studies are showing the medicinal properties of cannabis.


The VA website downplays the approval of marijuana in the United States, stating that "several" states have accepted the use of medical marijuana and/or recreational marijuana.


In all actuality, it's far more than "several."


Thirty-three states have enacted medical marijuana laws that allow eligible people to obtain or grow cannabis to treat various conditions.


Additionally, 15 states have decriminalized marijuana, and 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana.


A recent poll conducted at Politico and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that Americans feel that marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol, tobacco, or e-cigarettes.


In the survey, one in five Americans state they believe marijuana is very harmful to people. Twice as many stated the same about alcohol, 52 percent characterized e-cigarettes as very toxic, and 80 percent indicated tobacco cigarettes are hazardous.


And more than six in ten U.S. adults said they favor changing federal law to legalize marijuana for recreational use.


Another recent survey shows strong majority support among Americans for legalizing marijuana.

Also, almost all Democratic presidential candidates agree to remove marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances.


And veterans and the American public overwhelmingly support medicinal cannabis for veterans.


In the 2017 American Legion survey, 92 percent of veterans said they supported research into the use of medical cannabis, and 83 percent support legalizing medical cannabis.


A new study on PTSD and cannabis


A new study concludes that cannabis may already be helping Canadians cope with depression and suicide in people suffering from PTSD.


This study was conducted on more than 24,000 Canadians, which concluded that people experiencing PTSD and not medicating with cannabis are far more likely to suffer from severe depression and have suicidal thoughts than those who used cannabis over the past year.


The study provides initial evidence that cannabis use may contribute to decreasing the connection between PTSD, severe depressive, and suicidal states.


This research states that there are limited treatment options for PTSD, so many patients have acted by medicating with cannabis to alleviate their symptoms. However, this is the first time that outcomes from a nationwide survey have exposed the potential benefits of treating the disorder with cannabis.


This research documented the first relationships between PTSD, cannabis use, and severe mental health outcomes in the veteran population. The big question is: If a Canadian health survey looked at PTSD and cannabis with such a convincing conclusion, where is the VA on this issue, which affects as many as thirty percent of the American veterans who served in the wars since September 2001?


Veterans group supports medical cannabis


While the VA still stands on the statement that it is not allowed to do research; however, this is not actually true.


They just have to coordinate with outside agencies to conduct it.


Only one-third of veterans mentioned cannabis to their doctor because of the stigma attached to marijuana use.


Veterans have a legitimate fear of reprisals at VA and in the workforce, where there have been programs that they can lose their jobs for testing positive for marijuana.


We have found that in different parts of the country where the use of cannabis is less stigmatized open conversation can be conducted with the VA physicians. However, in parts of the country where it is still illegal, providers are more skeptical or judgmental. It shuts the veteran up and is then dangerous as the veterans do not communicate openly with their provider.


Why the VA will not budge


The biggest hurdle for veterans seeking cannabis from the VA is that it is still on that Schedule I list of controlled substances at the federal level.


This means that cannabis "no acceptable medical use and has a more significant potential for abuse and risk for arrest," as identified by the federal government.


The VA considers any form of marijuana illegal. This means veterans cannot get help accessing medical marijuana from their VA doctors, relying on their own means to obtain any.


The recent congressional hearing explored bills that would allow for extended access to medical marijuana for veterans. VA representatives confirmed their position opposing any policies as long as marijuana remained illegal at the federal level.


Many agencies are "committed to improving treatment options for veterans and supports research into potential treatment options that may prove valuable."


Specific federal law restricts the VA's research with Schedule I controlled substances, including marijuana.


Before conducting any VA research using a Schedule, I controlled substance would involve lengthy communications and coordination with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Health and Human Services.


Particular requirements include reviewing an investigational new drug application and approval of the research protocol by the FD, obtaining the medical drug through NIDA and the nationally approved medical marijuana production laboratory, and an investigator registration and site licensure by the DEA. These restrictions that are contained in federal law are clear. Research is allowed but must be done with the identified federal entities. If Congress wants more federal research into Schedule I controlled substances such as marijuana, it can eliminate these restrictions.


Multiple sources explain that Congress and the President can reschedule marijuana to make it accessible to veterans and make it researchable by the VA.


Former VA secretary wants more research


The Former VA secretary says that the VA should study cannabis.


"It is a little bit strange that marijuana is Schedule I while cocaine is Schedule II," stated the former VA secretary. "To say there is completely no medicinal value or application in cannabinoids is not true at all." "There is already an FDA-approved drug on the market, which is a cannabinoid, to treat pediatric epilepsy."


The FDA approved Epidiolex in June 2018; the first drug derived in the U.S. from the cannabis plant to reach local pharmacies.


He added that when he ran the VA, he was told the agency could not discuss cannabis with veterans and could not do research.


But he discovered later that this was not true.


"We can talk to our veterans about it. We just cannot prescribe the cannabis," says the former VA Secretary.


"It is possible to do research at the VA, but the barriers and bureaucracy are lengthy and painful. I can now more effectively articulate that Congress is the most likely player to streamline this research. And yes, it needs to be done."


Medical marijuana research


The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) is the nation's oldest research center for the safety and efficacy of cannabis.


CMCR recently announced research to explore the effectiveness and safety of medical cannabis as an alternative treatment for schizophrenia, insomnia, alcohol dependence, rheumatoid arthritis, and anxiety linked to anorexia. Research done by the CMCR has also shown that cannabis can be useful for relieving pain, but research has not been conducted for studying cannabis concerning PTSD. This center is directly linked to the VA's regional office located in San Diego.


The legislation is not moving


Certain Congress members have tried to push for new legislation to make medical marijuana available to veterans at the VA without success.


Here are a few bills that have not made any progress:


1) The Veterans Equal Access Act allows the VA health providers to recommend medical marijuana to their veteran patients and provide the required paperwork to enroll in state marijuana programs.


2) The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 supports the scientific and medical research of medicinal cannabis for veterans diagnosed with TBI, PTSD, chronic pain, and other injuries by clarifying that research of medicinal cannabis is within the authority of the VA.


3) The Veterans Medical Marijuana, Safe Harbor Act is an act that would enable VA physicians to issue medical cannabis recommendations under the laws of states where medical cannabis is legal.


4) The Safe Harbor Act would require the VA to conduct studies on the effects of medical marijuana on veterans in pain related to their treatment programs involving medical marijuana approved by states, veterans' access to these programs, and a reduction in veteran opioid abuse.


OK, for dogs but not veterans?


It is ridiculous that Americans in most states now have access to medicinal marijuana, but America's veterans do not.


I have a non-veteran friend, and he receives medical marijuana for his dog's anxiety. He was shocked when he discovered that dogs could get medicinal marijuana, but veterans cannot get the same treatment at the VA.


Washington, D.C. is an echo chamber of circular logic. We are convinced there is a national craving for this issue on medical cannabis for veterans. Still, politicians only seem to hear themselves and continue to assume that there is not. We must change this view and make it known.