As of 2020, there are more than 18 million veterans in the United States, with over nine million veterans who access healthcare each year provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).1
Every year, more than 200,000 Veterans transition out of service.2
- The VA reports that veterans suffer from chronic pain, with around 60% of veterans returning from combat, and 50% of elder veterans reporting suffering from chronic pain. Nationally, 30% of Americans suffer from chronic pain.3
- The resulting and compounding health conditions that veterans face post-deployment comes with the need for healthcare, numerous prescription medications, and mental health interventions.
- A recent research study published in March 2020, found that 53% of veterans report chronic physical pain and 33% reporting chronic mental health conditions. The top conditions reported included: chronic pain, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression.4
- Service members are also disproportionally at risk of developing a variety of mental health problems, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance use disorder (SUD), and suicide.5
- Treatments for these often-complex co-morbid conditions can also be difficult for veterans, including high rates of prescriptions that are used to treat the conditions or symptoms. In 2017, Nguyen and colleagues conducted a study of more than 52,000 veterans and found that on average they were prescribed 40 medications per year.6
- Veterans are at higher risk for suicide compared to the general population. In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veterans, with 6,139 veterans dying from suicide.1
With compounding health conditions and a cocktail of prescription medications that often have unwanted side effects, veterans are seeking alternative therapies for the conditions they face.
One of those alternative treatments is medical cannabis. Evidence suggests that cannabis can be helpful in treating a number of health conditions and symptoms ranging from treating epilepsy, nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy, and HIV/AIDS associated loss of appetite and weight loss. Other conditions for which evidence is pointing toward relief with medical cannabis, and more research is ongoing, include chronic pain, Anxiety, Epilepsy, Glaucoma, sleep problems, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and depression.7
While there is mounting evidence that medical cannabis can impact many health conditions that veterans face, veterans who are treated at the federal VA health system face barriers to accessing this alternative treatment. Due to the federal scheduling of cannabis as a class one drug, the VA system does not allow its healthcare providers to become recommenders of medical cannabis as an alternative treatment.
Veterans are allowed to participate in state-run medical cannabis programs, and this will not impact their VA benefits. Veterans are encouraged to discuss their medical cannabis use with their VA provider, but its use is not covered by VA benefits or reimbursed.8
For Veterans in Georgia, access to medical cannabis can be a lifesaver. With nearly 700,000 veterans living in Georgia, 9% of the population of Georgia, having access to medical cannabis can be an effective alternative treatment and improve the lives of many who have served our country. In fact, 47% of veterans in Georgia are over the age of 65 years; it is widely known that seniors are one of the fastest growing consumers of medical cannabis.9
For years, veterans’ organizations have been advocating for change at the VA, to allow for medical cannabis use for veterans, and more research into its effectiveness.
In 2017, an American Legion study found that 92% of veterans supported research into medical cannabis and 82% reported wanting to have cannabis as a federally legal treatment. Eighty-three percent of veterans reported that the federal government should legalize cannabis.10
The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) have included public pushes since 2018 for medical cannabis use and research for veterans.11 Specifically, the DAV has called for research into cannabis as an alternative pain relief option for those who suffer from PTSD, pain, and traumatic brain injuries (TBI).11
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVAs) most recent national survey showed that one in five members use medical cannabis. However, fewer than one third of veterans mentioned cannabis use to their VA doctor because of fear of loss of jobs or reprisal from the VA.12
With mounting evidence of the potential for medical cannabis to act an alternative treatment for veterans, it’s time to consider developing high quality educational programs for VA health providers on its potential uses and for veterans to know their rights in accessing medical cannabis in legal states.
Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Mental Health U, Prevention S. 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report.
Health ranks as top concern for Veterans immediately after military service. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://www.research.va.gov/currents/0120-Health-ranks-as-top-concern-for-Veterans.cfm
Survey shows veteran households support research of medical cannabis | The American Legion. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://www.legion.org/veteranshealthcare/239814/survey-shows-veteran-households-support-research-medical-cannabis
Vogt DS, Tyrell FA, Bramande EA, et al. U.S. Military Veterans’ Health and Well-Being in the First Year After Service. Am J Prev Med. 2020;58(3):352-360. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2019.10.016
Veterans and Military Health. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://medlineplus.gov/veteransandmilitaryhealth.html
Nguyen KA, Haggstrom DA, Ofner S, et al. Medication use among veterans across health care systems. Appl Clin Inform. 2017;8(1):235-249. doi:10.4338/ACI-2016-10-RA-0184
Cannabis (Marijuana) and Cannabinoids: What You Need To Know | NCCIH. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cannabis-marijuana-and-cannabinoids-what-you-need-to-know
VA and Marijuana – What Veterans need to know – Public Health. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.publichealth.va.gov/marijuana.asp
Cannabis use among older adults is on the rise, study says. Accessed September 23, 2020. https://www.statnews.com/2020/02/24/cannabis-use-among-older-adults-is-on-the-rise-study-says/
Medical Marijuana Research | The American Legion. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://www.legion.org/mmjresearch
The Cannabis cure – DAV. Accessed September 3, 2020. https://www.dav.org/learn-more/news/2018/the-cannabis-cure/
Veterans Medical Marijuana and PTSD. Healthline. Accessed August 27, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-are-veterans-still-being-denied-cannabis-for-ptsd-treatment#Veterans-group-supports-medical-cannabis