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Will My Fellow Vet Lose His Veterans Administration Benefits if He Uses Medical Marijuana to Help His PTSD?

Dr. Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman, PhD, MSW

Dear Doctors,

I am a veteran who has recently returned from Iraq. A guy in my support group was talking about how he uses marijuana to help with his PTSD (depression in particular). Does that really help? Can I get in trouble with the VA and lose my benefits if I become a medical marijuana patient?

Signed,

Wondering Vet in Oregon

Dear Wondering,

Thank you for your question.

There are many veterans returning home, and many who have been home for years, who experience PTSD and have tried a number of treatments. When it comes to the science, the research on marijuana as a treatment for PTSD is very promising, but still in its early stages, primarily due to the barriers to marijuana research at the federal level.

A lot of this research has been done is Israel. A 2009 study by Dr Irit Akirav showed that rats treated with marijuana within 24 hours of a traumatic experience successfully avoided any symptoms of PTSD compared to the untreated group.

Marijuana has also been shown to address specific symptoms of PTSD, such as anxiety where research has shown that it can enhance fear extinction and retention during exposure based therapies. Some also find marijuana a more effective treatment for sleep problems than most prescription drugs, with fewer side effects. The key is to find a good doctor who can monitor you as you begin to use marijuana as a treatment if you so choose.

In your state, Oregon, PTSD is a condition that can qualify someone as a medical marijuana patient with a recommendation from their doctor. Oregon has also recently approved marijuana possession and sales for those 21 and older.

Other states where you can qualify for a medical marijuana recommendation for PTSD are California, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Nevada. Although PTSD is not an approved condition in Colorado, Washington, or Alaska, any adult 21 and older can obtain marijuana in those states.

Here is where it gets tricky.

Because the VA is a federal agency, doctors who work there might be reluctant to recommend marijuana. The federal government does not recognize marijuana as medicine, even though the state of Oregon does.

The VA does have the discretion, in states where it is legal, to grant benefits to veterans who are also medical marijuana patients. But, this is carried out largely as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and VAs in states where medical marijuana is legal but not widely accepted, might deny benefits to veterans who are found to be using medical marijuana.

You live in a state with a progressive view of medical marijuana, but you might want to ask someone in your group who is a patient, if they have talked to the VA and how it went, and if they have a doctor they are working with.

The decision to use medical marijuana is a personal one, and should be between the patient and their physician. However, be aware that the stigma against medical marijuana use and the conflict between federal and state law might put veterans receiving benefits at a disadvantage.

Check out the group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access for more information.

Sincerely,

The Doctors

Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

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