Weed for warriors: How legal cannabis could treat the opioid crisis among US Veterans
Medicinal cannabis has been touted as a potential solution to the nation’s opioid crisis. But because of federal laws, veterans still cannot receive cannabis through Veterans Affairs (VA)—even in states where medical marijuana is legal.
Cannabis is considered a Schedule 1 narcotic according to federal laws, so VA doctors are not allowed to prescribe it to their patients.
Nick Etten, founder and chairman of Veterans Cannabis Project, is hoping to change that.
“This is a major problem for veterans, and one we’re working to fix,” he said. “Because Veterans Health Administration doctors are unable to recommend cannabis as a treatment option to patients, many veterans are forced to self-medicate and turn to uncertain or gray markets to obtain the medicine they need.”
Allowing the VA to recommend cannabis as a treatment option, along with providing counsel to veterans on how to access legal cannabis, would go a long way toward helping veterans in this country, he added.
The Veterans Cannabis Project advocates on behalf of veterans’ cannabis access. They educate the public and policymakers while aiming to eliminate the stigma surrounding marijuana. The organization also supports veterans nationwide, letting them know about their rights and the value of medicinal cannabis.
They also foster a community aiming to heal the nation’s broken approach to cannabis to provide safe, legal access.
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“Cannabis provides veterans with a safe alternative treatment option to opioids and other drugs like sedatives and benzodiazepine,” Etten said. “Too often, veterans are prescribed what is referred to as the ‘combat cocktail’ of medications, which can include multiple opioids.”
Veterans suffer from issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and chronic pain at a far higher rate than the average American, and as many as 20 Veterans commit suicide daily, he said.
“There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for those who are suffering, and what works for some may not work for others,” Etten said. “But veterans at least deserve the option of using safe, legal medical cannabis to treat their mental and physical health.”
When it comes to advocacy, Etten said veterans need to lobby elected officials to change existing laws.
“If veterans are willing to speak out on cannabis access issues, we urge them to contact their local representatives and senators,” he said. “However, we understand and sympathize with veterans who are unable or unwilling to speak up on behalf of cannabis legalization or even research due to their status in the service, or fear of losing VA benefits. Our organization seeks to provide a voice for the voiceless, and advocates on behalf of Veterans everywhere.”
Etten said interested veterans can join VCP and become a member of the VCP Force, which is the organization’s grassroots network of cannabis advocates across the country.
Though options for veterans in need of opioid alternatives are virtually nonexistent now, change could be on the horizon.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee recently scheduled a vote on a bill to require the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a series of clinical trials on the medical benefits of marijuana for military veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.
However, the Biden administration testified against the legislation last month.
Dr. Mikhail Kogan has experience treating veterans with cannabis. He says the fact that it’s still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic flies in the face of modern medicine.
“In my mind, it’s criminal. It’s disregard for evidence and veteran’s needs,” said Dr. Kogan, who authored the book “Medical Marijuana: Dr. Kogan’s Evidence-Based Guide to the Health Benefits of Cannabis and CBD.” “It (medical marijuana) could save billions of dollars, and, more importantly, optimize the health of vets. We could create an infrastructure of diagnosing that would be welcomed by a high percentage of vets.”
Jordan Guinn is a published journalist with bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Stockton Record and more. He’s covered everything from agriculture, to violent crime to water.