VA Doctors Banned from Discussing Medical Marijuana with Returning Veterans

Press Release March 30, 2010
Media Contact

Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Tamar Todd at (510) 229-5213

After returning from the battlefield, veterans who receive healthcare through the Veterans Administration (VA) cannot be recommended medical marijuana by their doctors, even though it might be the safest and most effective medicine to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other service-related conditions. The ban, which is official VA policy, means that–despite their service to our country–veterans who reside in the 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana are denied the same rights as every other patient in these states.

Overwhelming scientific evidence has proven marijuana’s efficacy for treating conditions like chronic pain, which affects many combat-injured veterans. Patient reports and published research also indicate that marijuana is highly effective in the treatment of PTSD, a condition which is estimated to afflict one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve run the gamut of all the different medications at the VA, and basically I was at my limit,” said decorated U.S. Army veteran Paul Culkin, a New Mexico medical marijuana patient who suffers from PTSD after serving as a bomb squad staff sergeant in Iraq . “The medications were turning me into a zombie, I couldn’t relate to my daughter. Medical cannabis made me a father and a husband again. It’s been a blessing.”

“It would be inconceivable to withhold weapons, equipment or training from our troops on the ground,” Culkin added. “And yet we are denied access to a medication that might provide relief to us and our families when we come home.”

“I find it egregiously offensive that we can send our children off to die for our freedom, and then so callously turn our backs on their freedom when they return home,” said Montel Williams, celebrated talk show host, medical marijuana patient, and veteran of the United States Marines Corps and Navy. “Research has proven the efficacy of medicinal marijuana in the treatment of PTSD. How dare we turn our backs on those who did not hesitate to put themselves in harms way to support and defend our constitution.”

Medical marijuana carries none of the serious, and possibly life-threatening, risks associated with prescription drugs routinely used to treat PTSD–drugs which have been implicated in the tragic overdose deaths of several current conflict veterans. Yet most veterans who would benefit from medical marijuana cannot obtain a recommendation for it from their doctors, even where it is legal for nonveterans to do so.

“While there is ample evidence suggestive of the adverse effects of drugs like Ambien, Haldol, Mirtazapine and others used in treatment by the Veterans Administration, there is little to no evidence regarding the adverse impacts of medical marijuana,” said Guy Gambill, a veteran of the U.S. Army and Fellow at the Open Society Institute. “The goal should be to assist veterans in recovery from combat psychological trauma, not criminalizing them for seeking treatments that work best for them as individuals.”

The VA claims its policy is a response to threats from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to criminally prosecute VA physicians if they recommend medical marijuana to their patients, or if they complete forms necessary for their patients to enroll in a state medical marijuana program. Although doctors who recommend marijuana to their patients are not committing any crime, the DEA is nevertheless attempting to intimidate doctors to prevent them from providing the highest standard of care to their veteran-patients.

“The Drug Policy Alliance urges the DEA to recognize that our veterans deserve the safest and most effective medicine to treat their conditions. They deserve to receive medical advice from doctors, not the DEA.” said Tamar Todd , staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The VA should reject the DEA’s harassment of veterans and remove the gag on VA doctors from even talking to their patients about medical marijuana. Veterans should not be treated like lesser citizens and denied rights that every other patient enjoys.”

With hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States faces a growing challenge in providing care for our returning veterans. 30 percent of current conflict veterans report symptoms of PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, depression, mental illness or other cognitive disability. Left untreated, these medical conditions often contribute to substance abuse and addiction, fatal overdose, homelessness and suicide, as well as violations of the law, particularly nonviolent drug offenses. Last year, DPA issued a report addressing these issues, Healing a Broken System: Veterans Battling Addiction and Incarceration, which offers recommendations for improving the care of returning U.S. veterans, including:

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.