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Veterans urge Congress, VA to catch up on expanding access to medical marijuana

Veterans urge Congress, VA to catch up on expanding access to medical marijuana
When he was deployed to Iraq in 2005, Army Sgt. E-5 Steven Acheson was assigned to the security detail of a high-ranking officer, driving a Humvee over IED-infested roads on more than 400 missions, as the violent insurgency tore the country apart.

During his deployment, he suffered an accident that left him with a herniated disc. He had also begun experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Nightmares and strange things would happen in the middle of the night. I’d gouge the side of my face with my fingernails, and all kinds of interesting things were going on,” Acheson, now 33, said.

His back injury went untreated, eventually requiring two surgeries. His doctors prescribed pain medication to help with his recovery.

“They just almost overnight filled me up with pills,” Acheson said. “I remember getting bags of pills mailed to my front door. I didn’t even have to leave my house to become a drug addict.”

He left active duty in 2008 and began pursuing an engineering degree, transitioning to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health system. But Acheson said he found it “almost impossible” to function while taking OxyContin, a powerful opioid.

Then he found something else that helped: marijuana. A friend on campus offered it to him, and it was like a “lightswitch going off.” Eventually he was able to stop taking pain pills entirely.

But medical marijuana was and remains illegal in his home state of Wisconsin, and even in the 33 states where it is legal, patients in the VA system don’t have access to it. The Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, the same category as heroin and ecstasy. While VA doctors can discuss marijuana use with patients, they can’t recommend patients use it or help them obtain it.

The VA also won’t reimburse veterans if they obtain marijuana through other means. Acheson wants that changed, arguing the VA should consider medical marijuana no different than other forms of treatment veterans obtain through private providers. 

“They do it already with acupuncture. They do it already with chiropractic work. They do it already with a number of things health care related that the VA just can’t provide. I don’t see any reason why on a state by state basis, we can’t be doing the same thing with cannabis,” Acheson said.

Acheson is now the co-founder and director of the group High Ground Veterans Advocacy, and co-founder of Wisconsin Veterans for Compassionate Care. He has also become an advocate for medical marijuana in Wisconsin, where the new Democratic governor supports medical marijuana legalization and decriminalization of small amounts for recreational use.

On the federal level, there are signs that support for expanding access to medical marijuana for veterans is growing. In February, Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Brian Schatz of Hawaii introduced the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act to allow VA doctors to discuss and recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where it is already legal.

In 2018, the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America (IAVA) surveyed 4,600 of its veteran members and found 55 percent of respondents said they want greater access to medical marijuana. Eighty-three percent said cannabis should be legal for medicinal purposes. About a quarter said they had used marijuana for medicinal purposes.

“Our veterans want access to the same care and options as their civilian counterparts. It is frustrating that the VA would prefer a world where those who have served their country have access to fewer treatment options than those who have not,” IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler said in a statement.

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First published on March 1, 2019 / 5:53 AM

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