Vets confounded by dueling medical marijuana rules
If there is anyone that has earned the right to consume medical marijuana, it's our nation's military veterans. Yet, due to the federal government's outright contempt for medical marijuana, military veterans are left to deal with two layers of bureaucratic madness to sift through in order to use medical marijuana legally. Below is an article that was sent to me by the San Francisco chapter of Americans for Safe Access:
Veterans Affairs allows it in some states while Justice Department cracks down.
For two years, John Riccio worried that smoking marijuana to relieve his chronic back and shoulder pain would get him in trouble with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Then the department last year began allowing former service members to use medical marijuana – in states that have laws permitting it – in conjunction with their regular treatment. Riccio, a Navy veteran living in South Park, says he sleeps easier now that he can talk about it with his VA doctor without risking his benefits.
The policy clarification has veterans like Riccio wondering why the government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin and deny that the plant has any medicinal use. In October, the four U.S. attorneys in California announced a massive crackdown on marijuana growers and storefront dispensaries.
“It’s complete hypocrisy and it’s a war on people,” said Ricco, a 31-year-old Wisconsin transplant who left the Navy in 2008. “It’s a war on good, compassionate, law-abiding people.”
The directive on medical cannabis has added a new wrinkle to a years-old dispute between the federal government and a growing number of states that allow marijuana for sick and dying patients.
The Justice Department has stressed that it would not focus federal resources on sick individuals in shutting down dispensaries. Federal authorities point out that not only is marijuana illegal under federal law, but they say in California it has become pervasive, profit-driven and abused by people who are not sick.
There are laws allowing medical marijuana in 16 states and Washington, D.C.,
Medical pot advocates have lamented a series of memos from various federal agencies challenging the rights of patients to do everything from possess a firearm and ammunition to receive federal housing assistance. There’s also the risk to one’s job or being dropped from a list of people waiting for a liver transplant, said Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access, which worked with Veterans Affairs to craft the policy.
“There’s the sentiment out there that you’ve led these vets almost into a trap,” said Krawitz, whose organization is based in Elliston, Va. “You’ve got vets that were told they were going to be respected when it comes to their medicine. And when you start closing the noose around everybody, you are closing it around these vets as well.”
The Food and Drug Administration in April approved a study to test whether marijuana could ease symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, anger and flashbacks. Those plans were dashed when HHS refused to sell researchers the marijuana needed for the study.
The Food and Drug Administration remains the sole institution that approves medication in the U.S. Rafael Lemaitre, communications director at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the veterans directive and the crackdown by federal prosecutors both deal with the reality of states working outside the Food and Drug Administration.
“We can’t control whether a patient does or does not participate in a state-approved marijuana program,” said Michael Valentino, chief consultant for pharmacy benefits management services at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “What we have attempted to do is recognize the fact that veterans do, and other people do, and then to provide guidance to our staff on how to deal with those situations when they occur.”
While the policy, which was thoroughly vetted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is not intended to be a green light, Valentino said, it’s also not intended to be a red light, either.
Department rules say veterans could be denied pain medications if they used illegal drugs. The marijuana policy created the first written exception. It does not allow department doctors to recommend marijuana nor does it allow veterans to use the drug on federal grounds.
Under the new policy, participation in a state medical marijuana program may require a veteran’s treatment team to modify their program. But doctors would ensure they continued to receive regular benefits such as VA-provided health care. That includes veterans diagnosed with PTSD.
“It’s really going to be up to the providers and the treatment teams to decide whether participation in a state program is going to require modification of what we are doing on our end,” Valentino said.
“The last thing in the world that we want to do is provide some kind of guidance that gets veterans embroiled and entangled in criminal issues. That’s what we are trying to avoid,” he added.
Even if the Justice Department isn’t focusing on sick individuals, its crackdown has affected them, said Daante Tirado, 50, of San Diego. The disabled Air Force veteran served one tour in South Korea and left the military after four years. He began using marijuana in conjunction with Flexeril and Vicodin after suffering two severe neck and back injuries.
Tirado said his VA treatment team made little fuss when he came clean about the marijuana use. “Just as it should be,” he said.
But the elimination of nearly every storefront dispensary in his path has made getting the medical marijuana more difficult and potentially more expensive.
“Without any medication, this pain level, this torture level, I want to kill myself,” he said. “I won’t. But I want to. Just to stop the pain. I just cringe at the fact that I might not be able to relieve that pain.”
It’s unknown how many of the 22 million veterans use marijuana, Krawitz said. For many who spent years serving in the military, with its zero tolerance for illicit drugs, there can be a stigma associated with medical pot. The Veterans Affairs directive, coupled with increased federal enforcement, are indicative of the minefield of ambiguities regarding medical use in California, lawyer Katherine Clifton said.
She is preparing a lawsuit against the city of San Diego seeking to contain the flow of legal action against dispensaries and their landowners.
“The laws are all over the map, they are constantly changing, and nobody, even the federal government, really understands what the bottom-line legal issues are,” Clifton said.
Riccio said he bathes in hemp soap, cleans his dishes with hemp, eats hemp bread and smoothies and takes hemp supplements. In addition to relieving his pain, his overall health has gotten better by the day. He goes for routine checkups, practices yoga, rides his bicycle and eats a health diet. Riccio was a counseling intern at the Veterans Village of San Diego and also served in the Wounded Warrior fellowship program as a community representative in the 51st District.
Now, his biggest concern is having to return to pharmaceutical drugs or turn to the black market for his marijuana.
“It wouldn’t matter if I had a card or not,” he said. “It would be illegal.”