Veterans Demand Access to Marijuana But Our Government is Standing in the Way

Jose Garza representing veterans demanding the legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes givin...

You might have heard about a study — published a few months back, but just making it's rounds on the Internet — that found a correlation between the use of medical marijuana and lowered suicide rates. While the findings need more analysis, this is only one of several studies conducted in recent years that points out the growing need for medical marijuana by a specific population — veterans.

Veterans, who often suffer from depression, PTSD and chronic pain, find themselves in a unique position to demand the legalized use of marijuana for medical purposes, and thousands of veterans — including the group Veterans for Medical Cannabis AccessVeterans for Weed United and Veterans and Civilians for Cannabis Legalization — already are. It's time for the government to tear down the red tape that prevents them from getting the help they ask for.

It was only late last year that a number of states (OregonMaine and others) with medical marijuana laws added PTSD to the list of accepted conditions for which it can be subscribed. This painful rollout, when the evidence increasingly points to the benefits of using marijuana to treat PTSD, is harmful for veterans in every other state, especially when 86% of the public supports medical marijuana.

"I'm not a hippie. I'm not a stoner. I'm not a criminal," said Jose Garza at a Senate hearing in Oregon. "I'm a United States veteran, and this is what saved my life."

map via Marijuana Policy Project

In addition to the study conducted by economists Mark Anderson and Daniel Rees which found that medical marijuana might help reduce suicides in men, there have been a handful of studies which show that marijuana is helpful in combating PTSD because cannabis can help modulate the fear system in the brain.

A study at Israel's University of Haifa showed that rats given marijuana within 24 hours of suffering psychological trauma did not develop signs of PTSD. The study concluded that there is a "critical window of time after trauma" in which synthetic marijuana can help prevent symptoms, and while it does not make PTSD fully disappear, it successfully mitigates the disorder.

Marijuana is also widely shown to reduce chronic pain, a common problem that afflicts vets recovering from major injuries. A study performed by the University of California at San Francisco indicated that adding cannabinoids — the main ingredient found in medical marijuana — to an opiates-only treatment would help reduce pain and may result in reduced opiate dosages.

Since 2011, the Department of Veterans Affairs has protected veterans who were prescribed medical marijuana in states where it is legal — which currently includes only 20 states and the District of Columbia. But doctors are restricted by federal law from proactively prescribing the drug to their own patients. That means Virginia doctors still can't prescribe medical marijuana to their patients.

The red tape surrounding the legalization of marijuana, or at least access to medical marijuana, has made it all but impossible for veterans in most states to get access to the drug. Some veterans are seeking it out through extralegal means. Jeremiah Civil and Christian Slater, both veterans of the Iraq War, told Vice that they self-medicate through marijuana they purchase on their own.

"When I smoke, it makes my brain slow down enough to deal with all of the shit out in the world. It helps me reach a balancing point. I've been on every drug they have out there, and none of them did what marijuana has done for me," Slater said.

While more study needs to be done to shore up the long term effects of medical marijuana, the evidence is certainly mounting that — at least in the short term — this drug may be able to help vets cope with issues the medical community has struggled to treat. States and the federal government need to recognize what the research shows.