The U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) recently adopted a policy prohibiting VA physicians from recommending medical marijuana to their patients, even if marijuana is the safest and most effective medicine to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other service-related conditions.
No doubt the policy stems, in part, from the VA's efforts to address the serious problem of drug abuse among returning veterans. Veterans' advocates and organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) certainly share this concern; last fall, DPA issued a report calling for immediate policy changes to improve veterans' substance abuse and mental health treatment.
Yet seen from the larger perspective of helping veterans adjust to civilian life, the VA's stance on medical marijuana is counterproductive and harmful. The ban means that--despite their service to our country--veterans who reside in the 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana are denied the same rights as every other resident of these states.
At minimum, the VA should be actively studying whether cannabis and its unique chemical ingredients can be used to reduce post-combat trauma without contributing to drug dependency. Ample research and anecdote strongly suggest this is the case.
Patient reports and published research indicate that marijuana can be a highly effective treatment for PTSD, a condition afflicting nearly one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And overwhelming scientific evidence has already proven marijuana's safety and efficacy for treating conditions like chronic pain, which affects many combat-injured veterans.
Marijuana, moreover, carries none of the risks associated with prescription drugs used to treat PTSD, which have been implicated in the tragic overdose deaths of several current conflict veterans.
"I've run the gamut of different medications at the VA, and basically I was at my limit," said decorated U.S. Army veteran Paul Culkin, a New Mexico medical marijuana patient who suffers from PTSD after serving in Iraq. "The medications were turning me into a zombie...medical cannabis made me a father and a husband again. It's been a blessing."
Disappointingly, however, it seems the VA's policy is not just about preventing substance abuse among veterans. The VA claims the ban is primarily a response to threats from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to prosecute VA doctors for recommending medical marijuana, or for completing forms necessary for their patients to enroll in a state medical marijuana program--even though to do so would not constitute a criminal offense. Civilian doctors recommending marijuana to their patients have not been arrested or threatened with arrest.
Veterans and advocates are now urging the VA to stand up to the DEA's harassment of veterans and remove the apparent gag order on its doctors. Such advocates include Montel Williams, talk show host, medical marijuana patient, and veteran of the United States Marines Corps and Navy, who said:
"I find it egregiously offensive that we can send our children off to die for our freedom, and then so callously turn our backs on their freedom when they return home. Research has proven the efficacy of medicinal marijuana in the treatment of PTSD. How dare we turn our backs on those who did not hesitate to put themselves in harms way to support and defend our Constitution?"
As a result of the ban, veterans who would benefit from medical marijuana are forced to obtain medical advice about it from private doctors outside the VA system--at their own expense.
Of course, veterans in states without medical marijuana laws fare far worse. These veterans risk arrest for using marijuana to treat their combat injuries, joining the more than 800,000 Americans arrested annually for marijuana offenses. DPA's report advocates for sensible policies to prevent the arrest and incarceration of veterans. Protecting veterans who use marijuana is an obvious starting point. In fact, other NATO countries not only allow their veterans to use medical marijuana, but actually reimburse them for it. Sadly, it appears U.S. troops will not come home to as enlightened or compassionate a country.
Our veterans must not be treated like lesser-citizens. They deserve to receive medical advice from their VA doctors, not the DEA. They deserve, above all, the freedom to choose the safest and most effective treatment for their conditions--whatever that treatment might be. Paul Culkin said it best: "It would be inconceivable to withhold weapons, equipment or training from our troops on the ground. Why are we denied access to a medication that might provide relief to us and our families when we come home?"
Bob Kerrey is President of the New School in New York City and former Senator from Nebraska. Jason Flom is on the Board of Directors of the Drug Policy Alliance and President of Lava Records.