For more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been dealing with a quiet crisis in a way similar to how it dealt with abhorrent conditions at its main hospital: Continue apace with a broken system and pray nobody notices. Spoiler—it’s not working, and it’s obvious.
As many as 30 percent of the 2.7 million men and women deployed to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 returned with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many other veterans also suffer from chronic pain. To date, opiates have been central to the VA’s strategy for dealing with war’s predictable and lasting collateral damage. (That the country’s opiate crisis arose at the same time as the country’s two ongoing and apparently edless foreign wars is sheer coincidence, surely.)
A growing number of combat veterans believe cannabis is an appropriate, effective and nonaddictive long-term solution for PTSD and chronic pain, and they want to be able to use it with the full approval and cooperation of the VA.
The VA been almost entirely resistant to any such change and recently has stooped to publishing misleading and “worthless” studies to defend its position, some advocates of cannabis for veterans are proclaiming.
What’s more, the VA is attempting to block ongoing research—that, if ever completed, might contradict the VA’s findings—by dissuading veterans from participating in future studies, one activist alleges.
In August, the VA published a pair of studies that reviewed prior scientific research on marijuana’s value for treating chronic pain and PTSD. Conducted by VA doctors based in Portland, Oregon—where medical cannabis has been legal for almost 20 years and where recreational marijuana has been available in retail outlets for almost two years—and published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, the studies’ findings were almost entirely negative.
“Evidence is insufficient to draw conclusions about the benefits and harms of plant-based cannabis preparations in patients with PTSD,” the authors wrote in their conclusion. (Reading more deeply, the findings are worse than that. Data that found “adverse events” associated with cannabis use, up to and including suicide, was taken seriously.)
At the same time, the scientists did admit that more research was necessary to draw final conclusions and also acknowledged the importance of allowing VA doctors to talk with their patients about using the drug.
In other words, a “worthless” use of time and money, according to Sean Kiernan. A Marine Corps veteran from the pre-9/11 era, Kiernan is president of the “Weed for Warriors” project, a California-based nonprofit that’s been pushing for VA acceptance—or at least tolerance—of cannabis.
Speaking to the Washington Times, Kiernan faulted the VA for using precious funds to “regurgitate” existing research. If it’s as “inadequate,” as the VA itself proclaims, why bother repeating it in the first place?
One major study underway that could reduce the VA’s position from questionable to indefensible has been slowed for lack of research participants. According to Kiernan, the VA is actively trying to convince veterans not to participate in Dr. Sue Sisley’s clinical trial.
If the evidence is bad and there’s a need for more, why simultaneously act to stymie further research?
“It doesn’t make sense unless the screams for research are intended to be words only,” Kiernan told the Washington Times. “They say, ‘We don’t have research,’ and then they’re blocking the rigorous research.”
The VA’s findings also contradict a report from the National Academy of Sciences, which reported in January that there’s sufficient evidence to say that cannabis provides “significant” relief from pain.
Sisley’s study is the only pending clinical trial involving cannabis that specifically looks at military veterans.
Further complicating matters is the government’s supply of research-grade cannabis. It’s awful—low in THC and CBD and possibly fraught with mold and other contaminants—and bears little resemblance to the cannabis found in dispensaries or in the hands of self-respecting black-market dealers.
It’s clear the status quo is untenable.
Even the American Legion, seen as the country’s “most conservative” veterans’ advocacy group, is asking Congress and President Donald Trump to allow VA doctors to give their patients marijuana recommendations. The lack of progress on that front, combined with the VA’s bizarrely combative approach towards the very research it claims to seek, is leaving some veterans questioning whether there isn’t a rather obvious plot afoot.
“We need treatment that works. We need treatment that is not destructive,” said Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL and an advocate with the Veterans Cannabis Project, in a May interview with POLITICO. “The VA has been throwing opiates at veterans for almost every condition for the last 15 years. You are looking at a system that has made a problem worse the way they have approached treatment.”