Honoring our Veterans: Healing PTSD with Cannabis
By Kaline Ceklowski
Due to the growing popularity of cannabis among veterans in the treatment of PTSD, veterans are becoming the unlikely face of medical marijuana. Over the past few decades, calls for the federal legalization of medical marijuana have grown louder with an increasing number of veteran advocacy groups, scientists and policymakers championing the cause.
But despite state-by-state legalization spreading across the U.S. and growing research into the benefits of cannabinoids in the treatment of PTSD, veterans still face significant challenges in accessing compassionate care.
When we think about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, veterans are often the most recognized and studied group. While numbers vary across studies, the VA estimates that between 11-20% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans (Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom) and 30% of veterans overall suffer from PTSD.
The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as “a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence or serious injury.”
Due to the nature of combat, veterans are more likely to suffer from PTSD than average Americans, with one 2017 study demonstrating veterans may have nearly twice the rate of PTSD (12.9%) than the general US population (6.8%).
Living with PTSD can mean having flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, intense episodes of sadness, anger and estrangement or detachment from others and the world.
For veterans in particular, this can mean reliving combat, recollecting traumatic events in war including “disturbing recollections of injuries or fatalities” as well as being “on-guard” or hypervigilant, feeling unable to discuss past trauma and events, as well as feelings of guilt, shame, fear and difficulty sleeping. (For more information and further resources on PTSD, please visit the APA’s website)
Soldiers Speak Up
Over the past decade, cannabis use has increased among veterans and has become a more popular way to address their PTSD-related symptoms. As cannabis becomes legalized in more states, a growing number of soldiers are speaking up: veteran advocacy groups report overwhelming support from veterans to legalize medical marijuana.
According to a 2019 survey published by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a group representing over 425,000 veterans, 83% of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans “strongly support legalizing marijuana and increasing research into the medical uses of cannabis”. Additionally, 91% indicated they would be interested in using cannabis as an alternative treatment option and 90% “support further research into cannabis for medical purposes”.
Yet despite such overwhelming support, veterans face backlash from the VA and the DOJ on legalizing, studying and recommending medical marijuana use as a treatment for PTSD.
The IAVA asserts, “Veterans consistently and passionately have communicated that cannabis offers effective help tackling some of the most pressing injuries they face when returning from war. [...] Our nation is rapidly moving toward legalizing cannabis [...]. Yet our national policies are outdated, research is lacking, and stigma persists.”
The Stigma Stonewalls the Science
Despite recent studies demonstrating the “promise of cannabis as an alternative treatment for PTSD” and therapeutic benefits on PTSD, including a decrease in global PTSD symptoms and sleep disturbances, there are still disagreements on the effectiveness of marijuana in the treatment of PTSD due to a lack of scientific studies overall.
Scientists and veteran advocacy groups point to the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance and to the VA and DOJ’s “history of stonewalling” legislation related to medical research and access to cannabis for veterans as the primary impediments to this work.
Kyle Jaeger, a journalist at Marijuana Moment states: “Since the first introduction of the Veterans Equal Access Actby Congressman Earl Blumeanuer in 2014, the VA under three presidents and four secretaries has opposed every cannabis-related reform aimed at the department. [...]
Over the last eight years, hundreds of representatives and senators have sponsored and cosponsored bills which the VA has uniformly rejected, including: Codifying a Veteran Health Administration directive protecting veterans who disclose cannabis use; Allowing VA physicians to fill out paperwork to allow veterans to access state medical marijuana programs; Conducting mandated research investigating the medical applications of cannabis; Creating a safe harbor for veterans to possess cannabis on VA property.”
Medical Marijuana: A Life or Death Issue
Facing this resistance, a growing number of veteran groups advocating, educating and lobbying for the legalization of medical marajuana for veterans have emerged including the Veterans Cannabis Project and the Veterans Cannabis Coalition who view medical marijuana as a life or death issue for their members.
According to the VA, an average of 18 veterans a day committed suicide in 2018. The Veterans Alliance for Holistic Health gives this harrowing account: “In the last ten years, we have lost more Military Veterans to Suicide than were lost in combat during the entire Vietnam War. Within the last five, more First Responders have taken their own lives by Suicide than have died in the Line of Duty. Pharmaceutical Opioid Overdoses have increased 6x as the United States recorded close to 1 Million Overdose Deaths within the last two decades. It is time for change.”
Onwards and Upwards
Hope is on the horizon, thanks to the movement’s collective efforts for change. This past June, the Veterans Equal Access Bill was reintroduced in Congress to make access to medical cannabis easier for veterans with the support from many cannabis and veteran advocacy groups.
One of the chief sponsors of the Bill, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) called for justice: “We have ill treated our veterans. There was a time when we passed out opioids to them like Tic Tacs while we denied them the ability to use their VA doctor to be able to deal with medical cannabis, which would have been safer and more effective.”
Veteran and cannabis advocacy groups are no strangers to perseverance, not least in the face of objections from Congress. If the most recent victories in Maryland and Missouri for legalization are any indication, it is only a matter of time before our institutions give our veterans the proper treatment and healing they deserve.
Kaline Ceklowski is a writer, researcher and educator from LA. They have written about cities, inequality and social justice issues for over a decade. Their work has been featured on Truthdig and City Journal.