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How much longer can we ignore treating our military vets?

By Kristi Kelly

In a break-out session at the 2017 World Medical Cannabis Conference and Expo in Pittsburgh on April 21 and 22, a group of veterans from the Ohio-based Veterans Ending the Stigma (VETS) spoke to the room about overcoming the stigma of medical cannabis.

Then, Dr. Sue Sisley provided an update to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) clinical trials, currently underway using federally-grown CBD-rich cannabis strains.

Representatives from the Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Options (CAMO), an aspiring Pennsylvania medical cannabis company, presented their veteran-focused business offerings on the main exhibit floor, where they fielded questions from curious vets who expressed eagerness to participate in the program.

Among all of this activity, the question arose – why is the bridge between medical cannabis and veterans fraught with such confusion?

The challenge begins with the federal status of medical cannabis, and the hesitation that servicemen and women may have in pursuing it as a treatment option. Cannabis is currently a Schedule I substance, which is a Drug Enforcement Administration designation for drugs with no medical benefit and the highest propensity for addictiveness.

In an August, 2016 letter, Drug Enforcement Administration’s Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg stated that drugs on Schedule I include some substances that are exceptionally dangerous, and some that are less dangerous – such as marijuana.

Rosenberg’s position is a gentle acknowledgement of what many veterans and other current and aspiring medical patients are already witnessing anecdotally. It’s well understood among industry advocates and within patient circles that medical cannabis serves as effective treatment for a number of conditions, like anxiety and depression, as well as two conditions prevalent among veterans – chronic pain and PTSD.

Regardless of the politics of an administration, there is no disputing that suicide rates of veterans are much higher than the general population. According to statistics from the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in 2014, there were 41,425 suicides among U.S. adults. Over 7,000 of these suicides were identified as veterans of U.S. military service. In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day

And again, regardless of politics, America is currently facing an opioid epidemic. There are currently 2.5 million Americans diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD), and 200 million prescriptions are being written every year. That number of prescriptions represents nearly the entire adult population of the U.S., according to Dr. Yasmin Hurd in a February, 2017, article for the medical publication, “Trends in Neurosciences.” Dr. Hurd is the Ward-Coleman Chair of Translational Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Director of the Center for Addictive Disorders for the Mount Sinai Behavioral Health System. She studies the molecular and neurochemical effects of both cannabinoids and opioids.

With an increasing number of states enacting laws to permit legal access to medical cannabis, and the potential to save lives for those who offered their service to the country, how can we continue to turn a blind eye and use “lack of science” as an excuse to ignore the benefits of a plant that has been part of traditional Eastern medicine for thousands of years?

Listen to the story of Ryan Miller, one of the vets in the CAMO booth. Miller was a West Point graduate with dual advanced degrees from Harvard University, who was injured in combat during the Iraq War. In October of 2007, he took a hit from a roadside bomb that destroyed his left leg below the knee. His abdomen was peppered with chunks of copper. His intestines, stomach, liver and bladder were full of shrapnel. “I was on painkillers that ultimately required amputation. It wasn’t until I got out of the military and moved to California that I was able to start using cannabis. Cannabis controls the pain issues I had, and I also saw how effective it was with other veterans. I consider myself lucky that I was able to get off the opiates on my own. I know a lot of folks who weren’t as lucky because they didn’t have the same access.”

A few minutes in the CAMO booth at the medical marijuana conference revealed a pattern of rapid-fire questions and answers from the CAMO staff and booth visitors. Here is a sampling:

Question: How do I, as a veteran, get medical cannabis?

CAMO staff: You must live in a state with a legal medical cannabis program and procure a medical designation, either via registry, physician recommendation, or other protocols which differ by state.

Question: Will my VA doctor prescribe it?

CAMO staff: Sometimes. More likely, they won’t, and veterans will have to receive a recommendation elsewhere. The downside of going outside of the VA system is that the cost of medical cannabis is not defrayed, as it would be for other pharmaceutical products.

Question: Will the government allow me to take it?

CAMO staff: The VA maintains the position that a veteran could not lose their benefits (with financial benefits being the most important) if they were using cannabis under the lawful parameters of a state-legal medical cannabis program.

For men and women who have dedicated time to military service, demonstrated respect for country and the laws of the U.S., treating their medical conditions presents complex personal challenges as they explore the benefits of the lifesaving cannabis plant, within the paradox of its federal designation and the negative reception it has received.

Cannabis needs to be more medically and financially accessible to the 21.8 million veterans living in the United States.

With any success, the cannabis industry, Dr. Sisley, Veterans Ending the Stigma (VETS) and Commonwealth Alternative Medicinal Options (CAMO) will continue to help veterans navigate new programs and help develop state-legal cannabis programs for what continues to be a federally illegal substance.

Kristi Kelly

Kristi Kelly

Kristi, who was CBE’s 12th ranked most influential woman in cannabis in 2016, is the executive director of Marijuana Industry Group, which helped create the world’s first taxed and regulated cannabis framework, and supports and advances licensed and regulated Colorado cannabis businesses today. She is also a founding board member of The Fourth Corner Credit Union, founding trustee of CannAbility Foundation, and co-Founder of Root Strategies Consulting.

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