BY JAY SMOKER
One in Five Current Conflict Veterans in VA Care Diagnosed With Substance Abuse Disorder
Report Calls for Alternatives to Incarceration; Increased Access to Overdose Prevention Programs and Medication-Assisted Therapy; and Medical Marijuana and MDMA for PTSD
The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization advocating alternatives to the drug war, has released an updated and revised edition of their seminal 2009 report, “Healing a Broken System.” The report examines the plight of returning veterans who struggle with incarceration and psychological wounds of war such as addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder – and suggests reforms that could improve the health and preserve the freedom of American soldiers returning from war zones and transitioning back to civilian life.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created new challenges in providing care for our returning veterans. Roughly 30 percent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, depression, mental illness or other cognitive disability. Left untreated, these medical conditions often contribute to substance misuse and addiction, fatal overdose, homelessness and suicide, as well as violations of the law, particularly nonviolent drug offenses. For these reasons, veterans are increasingly falling victim to the country’s longest war: the war on drugs.
The current generation of veterans joins the larger population of Vietnam-era veterans who have struggled with many of these same problems for decades. Research shows that the single greatest predictive factor for the incarceration of veterans is substance misuse and addiction. Evidence also shows that preventable overdose is claiming an unacceptable number of current conflict veterans – nearly as many as suicides. Experts predict the number of veterans facing these severe problems will only increase as more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, unless urgent policy changes recommended in the report are adopted.
“U.S. servicemen and women have been asked to bear an unthinkable burden in the past decade — and the military has prescribed them whatever drugs they need to keep fighting. But it’s a different story when veterans come home,” said Daniel Robelo, research coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We arrest too many veterans for drug law violations and incarcerate them for too long, leaving them with criminal records that make it all but impossible to get a job, housing, education, and other services – often creating a vicious cycle of addiction and incarceration. We fail to take simple measures to prevent fatal overdoses, we deny proven treatments for addiction and dependence, and we allow the drug war to stand in the way of new and promising treatments for PTSD and other service-related conditions.”
The report includes new sections on promising research evaluating the medical safety and efficacy of marijuana and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in treating veterans suffering from PTSD, addiction and other mental health conditions. In particular, the report focuses on New Mexico, where earlier this week the state’s Medical Cannabis Program’s Medical Advisory Board unanimously recommended to the Acting Secretary of Health to keep PTSD as qualifying condition and to deny a petition to remove PTSD from the list of eligible medical conditions for enrollment in the program. Today, more than 3,000 New Mexican residents with PTSD are actively enrolled in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program – and many of them are military veterans.
The report is available at:
- Changes in state and federal statutes to focus on providing community-based treatment instead of incarceration for veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related offenses – and on reaching veterans before they enter the criminal justice system.
- Adoption by government agencies of overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans who misuse substances or take prescription medications.
- Significantly expanded access for veterans to medication-assisted therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence.
- Expansion of research and access to innovative treatments for PTSD and other psychological and physical wounds of war, including treatment modalities involving Schedule I substances such as MDMA and marijuana.
- Two and a half million men and women have served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
- Approximately 50 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans receiving VA care have been diagnosed with PTSD or another mental health condition.
- Nineteen percent of current conflict veterans who have received VA care have been diagnosed with substance abuse or dependence.
- Seventy-five percent of Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD met criteria for substance abuse or dependence in a national study.
- Veterans do not qualify for substance abuse disability benefits unless they also have PTSD.
- Military personnel and combat veterans have higher rates of problematic substance use than their age peers in the general population.