Widespread Reports Surface of Veterans Denied Pain Meds if They Use Cannabis

NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Despite major marijuana reform afoot post 2014 midterms, one group of traditional users continues to suffer although increasingly not in silence.

Veterans of the nation's wars from Vietnam forward have long found refuge in the wonders of medicinal marijuana for a host of both combat and stress related conditions including traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These two intractable, complicated, physical conditions, which often exacerbate the psychological impact of war, are known as the "signature wounds" of the recent wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The impact is lifelong and highly debilitating. It is estimated that as much as 50% of the nation's vets suffer chronic pain. Six veterans a day commit suicide.

That said, veterans are also the demographic hardest hit by the slow pace of forward reform on particularly the medical cannabis front and as a result are beginning to speak out across the country. Veterans, unlike almost any other population, are bound by federal law at all points in their recovery and reintegration process and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. Testing positive for cannabis, even for those legally registered in state programs, can negatively affect veterans' health care benefits, student loans, jobs and even health benefits that many use to reintegrate more smoothly back into civilian life. Furthermore, even in states where medical marijuana is legal, VA doctors have frequently forced patients to choose between opiates and cannabis.

In 2011, the VA issued a directive stating that veterans who use state marijuana programs to help deal with pain management cannot lose their benefits and it is up to doctors and patients to craft an individualized treatment plan.

Three years later, the results are less than ideal. A study published in the highly respected JAMA Internal Medicine Journal recently reported that "people already taking opioids for pain may supplement with medical marijuana and be able to lower their painkiller dose, thus lowering their risk of overdose." The study was written by a researcher at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and also found that "medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates."

No matter. Veterans still find access to cannabis, particularly in consultation with a doctor, brings tremendous negative impact if not at minimum, severe stress.

Scott Murphy, the youthful founder of Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care explains it this way: "It is unclear how widespread the problem is, but it again shows the lack of professional management of the VHA system as a whole. VA doctors are not getting the basic education they need for cannabis, and because of that, veterans are not receiving the high quality healthcare they earned. The impact of the federal intolerance for veterans can be the difference between life and death, recovery or relapse. Many veterans are forced to choose between their health and the wellbeing of their family. If they lose their job because of using medical cannabis or lose housing their family also suffers."

Murphy, a combat vet, speaks passionately about the issue in his home state of Massachusetts; on Capitol Hill, where he frequently lobbies Congress on vets' issues; and to groups who invite him to speak.

"These are the same men and women who were willing to give their lives for their country," he says. "And their country does not have the decency to allow them to recover from deep emotional war wounds or physical aliments. Veterans who rely on opiates for pain management that have safe legal access denied are forced into the black market."

What makes this situation so much worse is that even VA doctors, despite issuance of federal guidelines on the same, frequently are afraid to prescribe or actively steer their patients away from medical marijuana. Military doctors serving vets, much like doctors who served the LGBT community during the AIDS crisis, are particularly vulnerable to professional if not unofficial federal government pressure to do the same.

"Freedom of speech is not the freedom to talk to a wall but the freedom to have a conversation," Murphy. "If doctors are denied the freedom of speech then veterans lose the freedom to listen."

As a result, Murphy says, "Veterans lose confidence and respect for their doctor, the policy makers and the medical system as a whole."

Families suffer, of course, because their loved ones are denied an option and a choice that may or may not work for their condition.

"Politics has no business in the doctor-patient relationship," he says. "In the veterans' community, doctors are viewed as spies of the state out to deny veterans their benefits."

In the next two years, it is very likely that this demographic will turn into a powerful force for reform, particularly on the topic of rescheduling or descheduling what is now a drug that the federal government claims has no medical efficacy as a Schedule I.

And in the meantime, full time advocates who know well of what they speak are determined to bring this long and festering issue to public attention. Many of them, like Murphy, can also prove that their lives post integration have been profoundly changed, and in many positive ways, by having the right to legally access and integrate medical marijuana into holistic healthcare plans designed for the full health of the vet.

And as a result, their voices, so long suppressed, are increasingly finding ways to change a system, long reluctant to change.

--Written by Marguerite Arnold for MainStreet

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