U.S. veterans who use medical marijuana are ensnared between harsh federal drug laws and the state-based push for legalization — and some say it’s blocked them from job training or other benefits.
Access to medical marijuana has quickly risen to the top of the veterans advocacy world as groups address chronic pain, depression and suicide rife in the veteran community. Both the American Legion, the country’s largest vet organization, and Veterans of Foreign Wars, have made researching the plant’s medicinal value a top legislative goal.
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The House Veterans Affairs committee may take up two bills by summer, allowing research on marijuana’s benefits for former servicemen, and another ensuring vets can use cannabis in states where it’s legal without losing medical benefits. Other advocates and some lawmakers want to go further, allowing the VA to prescribe medical marijuana in states where it’s legal.
Vets are “confused about what they can and cannot use,” said H.R. 2191 sponsor Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), who served in Iraq himself and who has spoken to veterans who have been denied benefits or are scared to see their VA doctors because routine drug testing would flag their marijuana use.
The VA isn’t tracking how many vets use marijuana to address conditions like trauma or pain in the 33 states that have legalized it for either medical or recreational uses. VA officials did not respond directly to questions about denial of benefits, or about ongoing marijuana research among veterans — whose combat experiences, injuries and use of a multitude of other prescription drugs may mean they respond differently than the population overall, researchers say.
“Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and until federal law changes, VA is not able to prescribe it,” a VA spokesperson said. The agency added that the law also restricts cannabis research by requiring cooperation with a range of federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As of April 2019, only eight researchers nationwide have received federally-approved marijuana this year, NIDA has said.
Meanwhile in the Trump administration, the Justice Department has defended strict anti-marijuana laws, and the DEA has kept it in the same federal category as heroin and LSD, even as the majority of states have legalized some form of marijuana sales or possession.
But vets are using it, according to the information that advocacy groups have been able to gather. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which represents the country’s youngest veterans, found in its most recent annual survey that one in five of its members used medical marijuana. Fewer than one-third of those users have talked about it with their doctor, even when it has affected use of other medications. And they’ve reported other obstacles to getting benefits, such as job training or caregiver support.
“There’s a huge disconnect between the way that the government is treating cannabis and the way much of the rest of the country is discussing it,” said Jeremy Butler, the CEO of that group. which advocates for younger vets. “We feel it’s completely wrong to say we’re not going to have this conversation.”
Vets pay for marijuana out of pocket, and risk having permanent notes on their file if it shows up on drug tests, creating barriers to job training benefits.
One veteran, wounded nearly a decade ago by a grenade in Iraq, told POLITICO that a career counselor labeled him “unemployable” and barred him from a 48-month vocational education program for disabled vets. His VA therapist and psychiatrist, he said, gave him “glowing recommendations” for the job training but noted his medical marijuana use.
“She said, ‘No one is going to hire you because you use medical cannabis,’” recalled the vet, who asked not to be identified. But he struggled with pain and PTSD for years after being injured at age 21. He has found that marijuana has helped him — and let him cut back on other drugs with more side effects. He is starting paramedic school, engaged and planning for a baby. “My 20s were a blur,” he said. “In 10 years, I’ve never been this stable.”
Under former Secretary David Shulkin, the VA said it would be safe for veterans would be safe to talk about marijuana with their doctors, therapists and other health care providers.
But several veterans have told POLITICO that has not been their experience. The current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has said it is up to Congress to allow VA marijuana prescriptions or more research; House VA Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said it hasn’t come up in any of his discussions with Wilkie.
Critics argue it’s not just about prescribing — VA doctors are not even allowed to recommend medical pot, and patients bear some risk in even bringing it up.
But some find it’s worth it.
Dr. Sue Sisley, an Arizona physician and researcher who treats veterans in her private practice and has studied cannabis and PTSD, said many vets come to her office taking eight to 10 prescription drugs with a myriad of side effects and interactions including sleep loss, sexual dysfunction and weight gain. Even small amounts of marijuana help them.
“You can imagine how demoralizing that is for all these vets who just want to be functional,” Sisley said, noting veterans already have a disproportionate risk of severe depression and suicide.
That was the experience of the disabled vet who was barred from the job program. The grenade attack in Tikrit, Iraq in 2010 gave him a traumatic brain injury. Crippling depression and anxiety followed, so severe that he had trouble holding down a job. He cycled in and out of inpatient care and addiction programs. He used opioids.
Last September, he got a medical marijuana prescription from a private doctor in Illinois and soon weaned himself off other medications, including Suboxone, which can treat pain and opioid addiction. But he hit a wall when he tried to get the job training.
“The VA doctor can’t come to my defense, because the VA can’t talk about it,” he told POLITICO after responding to a reader survey on medical marijuana that was not specifically targeted at veterans. “The only doctor who can talk about it is this guy who took $400 in a strip mall, who has no idea who I am.”
Arizona-based veteran Jason Salveson has been using marijuana for PTSD and severe anxiety, which his VA provider noted as a marijuana addiction in his file. He hasn’t lost benefits — though Salveson has not applied for a veteran’s job program. His big problem is financial. The VA pays for his prescription anxiety drugs, which he said don’t really help him, and actually caused side effects that bring old traumas “rushing back.” But his medical marijuana cost is out of pocket — a substantial amount of money for someone living on a VA disability check.
That pressure made him want to share his story, and Salveson recently started an online community for Arizona vets to come together and discuss marijuana treatments and barriers.
“It took me awhile to figure out how to go about the treatment, because I was doing it all on my own,” he said. “A lot of people are scared of losing their rights because of using medical marijuana.”