The transition into the new era of legalized marijuana has been slowly straining the mechanics of our federal bureaucracy for nineteen years. The social perception of cannabis is stuck in a strange limbo somewhere between medical miracle medication, and schedule I menace. While it has been legalized medically in twenty-three states to date, the feds have yet to concede. And this has created some rather sinister upshots for one heroic demographic in particular: American veterans.
Many of these brave men and women have slugged through mud, dust and sea spray to shoot and get shot at by America’s enemies. They deserve to come home and get the most comprehensive healthcare coverage available. But, of course, they do not. Instead our vets return to a prescription cocktail bar of addictive painkillers and psychoactive drugs to control anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) despite the existence of a non-addictive natural medicine that is known to decrease chronic pain and believed to help control PTSD: our good friend, marijuana.
Then why don’t suffering vets get a severance medical card and a free ounce of their top-shelf preference upon their return from service? Because it is federally illegal for V.A. healthcare providers and physicians to discuss the use of marijuana with their patients – even in states where it is already medically legal – and one cannot get a medical card without a physician’s referral. Which is an ugly paradox; if anyone deserves access to medical cannabis, it’s this country’s veterans. Yet because the VA (the US Department of Veterans Affairs) is a federal agency, vets can’t even talk about the use of cannabis in any form with their doctors.
VA healthcare providers have stuck to what they’re best at: merrily scratching off prescription after prescription of their favorite painkiller or anti-depressant, feeding this nation’s heroes with addiction and mental debilitation, which is a severely slippery slope. When first introduced to the many medical possibilities of cannabis, it is always prudent for one unfamiliar with the research to ask themselves whether they think America’s favorite green flower is truly enough to remedy the very real mental and physical health problems from which many veterans suffer. Many believe that the answer is yes.
For years veterans suffering from PTSD have sworn by the benefits of marijuana to treat their symptoms and have used it as a substitute for certain prescriptions. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is what gives cannabis its “feel good” properties, and it just so happens that the fear center of the human brain is modulated by naturally occurring cannabinoids. This is particularly useful because PTSD, in the simplest terms, is “an overreaction of the human fear center that cannot be inhibited.” By adding THC to the equation, the fear system has additional resources at its disposal – it can better control flashbacks or anxiety related to a traumatic incident.
However, one should not simply trust any given article. Instead, trust the data: a 2014 study showed that patients exhibiting symptoms of PTSD experienced a 75% decrease in the severity of those symptoms when introduced to cannabis. In a separate study run by scientists testing a different hypothesis altogether, a similar effect was observed. These scientists repeatedly exposed subjects to conditioned stimuli associated with traumatic fear (like a gunshot or an explosion for a veteran), to test whether repeated exposure to these stimuli could lessen the fear associated with them. Foreseeably, that didn’t work so well. They then tried the same exercise, but let their patients medicate with THC beforehand. They found that, with the addition of the THC, subjects substantially maintained mental health gains. More testing needs to be done, but there is obviously the potential here for a very valuable medication for veterans, with very few negative side effects.
Veterans remain hopeful. Earlier in November the senate passed an appropriations bill that includes a specific amendment (the Veteran’s Equal Access Amendment), which would allow for a legal dialogue between veterans and VA health providers about the use of medical cannabis as an alternative medicine. This is currently moving very slowly through the machinery of the House, but seems to have bipartisan support and hopefully enough momentum to get through so the nation’s veterans can get access to cannabis; the one thing they already know can help them, yet the one medication they are so specifically denied.
Sources: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/05/21/3661744/senate-committee-passes-bill-allowing-doctors-recommend-medical-marijuana-veterans/, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/12/23/256610483/could-pot-help-veterans-with-ptsd-brain-scientists-say-maybe, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2279610%209, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24830188, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/11/11/veterans-drop-hundreds-of-empty-pill-bottles-in-front-of-the-white-house/, http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/2015/11/senate-approves-funding-bill-allows-veterans-access-medical-marijuana
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