Every morning, former Air Force senior airman Amy Rising makes breakfast for her second-grader, drives him to school and returns home to prepare what she calls her medicine.
She suffers from severe anxiety after four years working in the frenetic global command center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, coordinating bombings and other missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rising says she has found a treatment that helps her cope. But her local Veterans Affairs hospital does not provide it — because her medicine is a joint.
At a time when the legalized use of marijuana is gaining greater acceptance across the country, Rising is among a growing number of veterans who are coming out of the “cannabis closet” and pressing the government to recognize pot as a legitimate treatment for the wounds of war. They say it is effective for addressing various physical and psychological conditions related to military service — from chronic back pain and neuropathic issues to panic attacks and insomnia — and often preferable to widely prescribed opioid painkillers and other drugs.
Researchers in the United States and several other countries have found evidence that cannabis can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pain, although studies — for instance, looking into the best strains and proper dosages — remain in the early stages.
Veterans are lobbying for more states to legalize cannabis for medical use — 23 states and the District of Columbia allow this — but the primary target is the federal government and, in particular, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Medical marijuana is legal for treating some conditions where Rising lives. She declined to identify her home state except to say it is in the Mid-Atlantic.
“It’s not about getting stoned. It’s about getting help,” she said. “The VA doesn’t have any problem giving us addictive pharmaceutical drugs by the bagful.”
Winning acceptance for medical marijuana, she said, involves convincing the government that there’s more to it than “Cheech and Chong, a stoned vet burning one down to Bob Marley tunes.”
If veterans report their use of marijuana to VA, they could face criminal charges if they live in a state where it is illegal. And though few have indeed been charged, the mere possibility has spawned a culture of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Michael Krawitz, a former Air Force staff sergeant and the director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.
VA medical staff have warned that this culture is making for a dangerous situation, especially as ever more states legalize medical marijuana, because doctors do not know all the medications their patients are using. Patients are not routinely given drug tests, but those who are prescribed large amounts of opiates and risk overdosing can be asked to take these tests, which can turn up marijuana use.
In 2011, VA issued a directive that said patients who were participating in state marijuana programs for pain cannot lose their VA benefits, adding that it is up to individual patients to craft their “treatment plans” in consultation with their doctors.
Some patients say their VA doctors are making them choose between their prescription drugs and marijuana. “Doctors and administrators wrongly assume that the use of marijuana along with opiates is unsafe,” Krawitz said.
A study published last month in the JAMA Internal Medicine Releases reported that “people already taking opioids for pain may supplement with medical marijuana and be able to lower their painkiller dose, thus lowering their risk of overdose.” The study, written by Marcus Bachhuber, a researcher at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and several colleagues, found that “medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates.”
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