Veterans have increasingly been turning to medical cannabis as a treatment option for a number of debilitating conditions, as research continues to show that it can be effective in managing pain and other health conditions. Yet, until the federal legalization of cannabis, the challenges in acquiring medical cannabis disproportionately fall on veterans, as they lack adequate access to this effective treatment option.
The severity of war-related injuries — both mental and physical — continues to threaten veterans across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), nearly 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience either post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. And nearly 60 percent returning from the Middle East are living with some form of chronic pain.
While there are a number of treatment options for veterans in place, the idea of cannabis being used to manage various physical and mental conditions has become increasingly popular across the nation. In fact, the most common prescription of medical cannabis has been for patients struggling with chronic pain. Additionally, health professionals and patients have seen cannabis effectively used in the treatment of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects up to 20 percent of veterans who served in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Yet, until there is full federal regulation of cannabis, the Department of Veterans Affairs is not permitted to prescribe or assist veterans in obtaining cannabis. As a result, some veterans are hesitant to join state cannabis programs to acquire medical cannabis for fear of being denied assistance from the VA. The veterans who do access medical cannabis in states where it is legal commonly run into challenges when attempting to find employment due to their cannabis use.
Since VA physicians cannot recommend or advise patients to use medical cannabis so long as cannabis remains federally illegal, VA medical professionals will continue to offer prescription drugs that can have addictive and long-lasting side effects. Many veterans struggling with chronic pain are likely to be prescribed opioid-based painkillers, which have devastated communities across the country in recent years.
As a result, the harmful effects of opioids have disproportionately impacted veterans, as evidenced by the National Institute of Health (NIH), which found that veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses than civilians. But federal cannabis legalization has the potential to reduce those numbers. Research has found that certain states that have legalized access to cannabis ultimately reduced opioid deaths by nearly 20 percent.