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Here's What Doctors Wished Veterans Knew About Medical Cannabis

VA doctors are currently barred by federal law from prescribing or even making consultations about medical cannabis. One doctor offers his advice for veterans who are considering medical marijuana cards.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Millions of veterans across the country have sacrificed their mental and physical health for our safety.

Drazen Zigic | Getty Images

Unfortunately, a majority of them still struggle with debilitating conditions well after they retire from active duty. While the VA health care system has taken painstaking measures to provide relief to these veteran communities, many veterans still do not respond to conventional medications and therapies for life-altering conditions such as PTSD and chronic pain. 

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As a cannabis doctor in Florida, I have seen firsthand how veterans can benefit both physically and psychologically from medical marijuana use. However, VA doctors are currently barred by federal law from prescribing or even making consultations about medical cannabis. Considering how Florida is home to the third-largest veteran population in the country, this leaves thousands of veterans who are eligible to use medical cannabis having to navigate a myriad of regulations and misinformation on their own. 

Despite its federal status, medical cannabis is a legitimate treatment for any veteran with a qualifying condition under state law. Having a chronic ailment can be an agonizing and isolating experience, and my colleagues and I are well aware of the stigmas and concerns that come with using medical cannabis within the veteran community. It is more important than ever for veterans to receive the support they need from the medical community and have a comprehensive understanding of the services they are entitled to when they begin their medical cannabis journeys.

Your VA benefits will not be jeopardized

One of the main reasons veterans hesitate to use medical cannabis is because they are afraid of losing their hard-earned VA benefits. This mentality may have carried over from their time in active duty when they were strictly prohibited from consuming recreational and medical cannabis products. However, once service members are discharged from the military, they should be free to consume cannabis products as civilians as long as they are not government employees or on military property.

This information is rarely communicated through the VA health care system since VA clinicians are prohibited from recommending cannabis or playing any role in helping veterans obtain products. Since cannabis is still a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the VA cannot prescribe cannabis products, pay for prescriptions, or complete any paperwork that would allow patients to participate in state-approved marijuana programs. 

On the other hand, veterans are allowed and encouraged to be transparent about their cannabis use to VA health providers. Although this relationship may seem one-sided, veterans can rest assured that VA health providers are still bound by privacy and confidentiality laws and cannot disclose a patient’s cannabis use without consent. 

You have the right to seek relief from mental and physical trauma

Under Florida health regulations, qualifying medical conditions for cannabis treatment include PTSD, chronic nonmalignant pain, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease, all of which can stem from combat injuries or traumas. Every state has different qualifying conditions, so make sure to check your own government website.

Veterans who struggle with any of these conditions are not alone. Currently, more than half of veterans receiving care at VA facilities across the country are affected by chronic pain, and more than 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and the Gulf War experienced post-traumatic stress and/or depression.   

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Unfortunately, for most of these veterans, their treatment plans prescribed by VA health providers are doing more harm than good. Since VA clinicians can only recommend FDA-approved medications, many veterans are placed on a cocktail of potent prescription drugs such as opiates and sedatives. In several cases, these courses of treatment end in addiction and preventable deaths. 

Data on opioid addiction among veteran populations is staggering. This 2011 study found that veterans are twice as likely to die from opioids than non-veterans. The VA health care system in Ann Arbor reported that veterans’ rate of opioid overdose deaths nationwide increased by 65 percent from 2010 to 2016. Additionally, VA officials reported a 55 percent increase in opioid abuse among veterans following combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our veterans have already overcome countless afflictions in active duty and modern medicine should not be exacerbating their suffering when they reach out for help.

For veterans trying to seek relief from qualifying physical and mental conditions, medical cannabis can be an effective and non-addictive alternative treatment when supervised by a trained doctor. Veterans can obtain medical marijuana recommendations by visiting a registered physician in their area and access their medicine at any Medical Marijuana Treatment Center or dispensary of their choice.

Thousands of cannabis doctors are equipped to treat veterans

I have had the privilege of treating many veterans over the years with medical marijuana. Most of my patients have struggled with physical and mental challenges from direct trauma, toxic exposures, and the mental strain they experienced while serving our country. In my own medical experience, veteran patients with chronic pain have responded well to cannabis, and many have either decreased their dependence on opioids or have completely weaned off their medications. 

RELATED: Survey: Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol, But Avoided Due To Social Stigma

Several of my veteran patients also visit my office to treat their PTSD, which affects nearly every aspect of their lives. In my experience, medical cannabis can decrease the emotional effects of their traumatic experiences. 

There are currently over 2,400 registered cannabis doctors in Florida that are committed to helping veterans improve the quality of their lives. We believe that using this plant in our practice is a compassionate and powerful way to treat mental and physical ailments while potentially decreasing dependency on pharmaceuticals.

Every veteran has the right to safe and accessible medical treatment, and we implore the veteran community to seek out legal avenues to cannabis care.