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Federal Ban Is Barring Access To Medical Marijuana For Veterans

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter

Medical marijuana laws are expanding in states across the U.S., but veterans are still struggling to access programs due to the continued federal ban on weed.

A growing chorus of veteran groups are petitioning the government to ease restrictions on federal marijuana policy. The continued classification of marijuana as a dangerous substance like heroin by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is leaving veterans at the mercy of their state’s particular pot policy. It is a violation of the Department of Veterans Affairs policy to prescribe or even recommend marijuana to a patient, due its status as a schedule 1 drug alongside deadly narcotics, reports THV 11.

The status as a schedule 1 drug also makes federally financed research nearly impossible to obtain. The situation is forcing veterans to break the law and commit felonies just to find relief from their chronic pain. Many are unable to get relief from painkillers or traditional treatments allowed under current federal law.

“The most evil thing in the world is a person who would knowingly allow their brother, sister, or neighbor to suffer,” Tom Lee, a veteran and marijuana activists in Arkansas, told THV 11. “I’ve tried not to do that and I’ve tried to let everyone know the truth about this plant.”

Lee served 19 years with the Army and National Guard where he came into regular contact with environmental pollutants on the Kuwaiti border. He found himself allergic to nearly all prescription drugs when he returned home in 2003 and soon became bound to a wheelchair. Doctors prescribed him heavy doses of morphine, but the treatment brought him to “a dark place.”

His treatment turned around when a friend in California introduced him to marijuana. It eased his debilitating pain and helped him walk again after three years in the wheelchair. Lee must break the law to get his hands on the pot, however; he’s unable to access Arkansas’s medical marijuana program through the VA.

Veterans suffering from a range of conditions including chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are facing similar barriers to medical pot in states throughout the country. Texans For Responsible Marijuana Policy, a veterans group, recently launched an effort to legalize medical marijuana in their state and draw attention to the daily struggles facing so many veterans.

“Every day, veterans are prescribed dangerous and addictive pharmaceutical drugs to treat service-related injuries and illnesses,” Kate Cochran Morgan, a veteran Navy FMF hospital corpsman, told KXAN. “Many of these drugs cause side effects for which another pill is prescribed. Cannabis can help treat conditions like PTSD and chronic pain, and it has a better safety profile than aspirin. It is unacceptable that veterans are being denied access to this medicine.”

Veterans suffering from PTSD are currently participating in the first clinical trial studying the efficacy of treatment with marijuana. Each participant will undergo treatment with marijuana over a 12-week period, with a required six-month follow-up. Researchers hope the results can give critical guidance to lawmakers in terms of future policy, specifically the treatment of veterans.

The study is expected to give enormous insight into the medical properties and uses of marijuana, a field with a small but growing body of research. Many health professionals in states that recently legalized marijuana are excited about the possibilities weed offers patients, particularly those who are treated primarily with addictive opioid medication.

Representatives for the VA say if a veteran receives a medical marijuana recommendation from a physician unaffiliated with the department, it will not impact the care they receive from the VA. Officials say the department policy is not likely to change until the DEA changes the federal designation of marijuana.

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