While the United States has seen immense progress regarding cannabis law reform and reshaping the public opinion of the drug over the years, the continued lack of federal legalization and regulation is clear, especially in its effects on groups like veterans.
Canada, which has legal cannabis throughout the country, introduced the Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) reimbursement policy for medical cannabis, allowing reimbursement of up to three grams a day for qualified veterans. The VAC specifically established a fixed rate of up to $8.50 per gram, taken in dried cannabis or its equivalent in fresh cannabis or oil.
In the U.S., VA providers are allowed to discuss cannabis use with veterans, but due to the federal Schedule I status of the drug, VA clinicians cannot recommend or cover medical cannabis. Of course, with mounting research on the potential benefits of cannabis as it relates to conditions affecting veterans, like PTSD or pain relief, it’s clear that U.S. veterans are still turning to this plant medicine for aid, with or without assistance from the VA.
New Insight on Veteran Cannabis Use
A new survey conducted by a pair of researchers affiliated with the University of North Texas and the University of Illinois provides further insight on the amount of cannabis-using U.S. military veterans. In an assessment of cannabis trends among a nationally representative cohort of more than 16,000 veterans from the years 2013 to 2019, the survey estimated that one in 10 veterans report having consumed cannabis within the past year.
The data was published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse.
“The legal landscape surrounding marijuana use in the United States (US) is ever changing,” researchers wrote. “Although substantial research has investigated risk factors of use among different populations, much is to be gleaned among veteran populations, who are at heightened risk for mental and physical health problems, which may be precipitated or relieved by marijuana use.”
The survey used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, comprised of 16,350 total veterans 18 years of age or older. Researchers tested for weighted linear and quadratic trends in past-year use, finding a significant increase (56%) in overall cannabis use from 2013 to 2019, with nearly one in 10 veterans (9.79%) reporting past-year cannabis use.
Broader Implications on Veterans and Cannabis Accessibility
Researchers also found that older veterans, or those aged 35 years old or older, were more likely to report using medical cannabis in the past year over the 18-25-year-old veteran age group. A minority of the study’s respondents acknowledged that they received authorization to use cannabis from a healthcare provider, likely due to federal law prohibiting providers affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs from issuing recommendations, even in states where medical cannabis is already legal.
“This increase, in the context of federal VA provider restrictions, has implications for issues of care coordination and safe supply for veterans,” researchers concluded. “Given the rapidly changing and heterogenous landscape of recreational and medical marijuana policy in the US, the present study may inform harm reduction efforts and behavioral interventions.”
The authors hone in on the point noting that, in context with current federal policy, the findings point toward a need for “enhanced care coordination” among those who may benefit from cannabis use but are unable to access it through the VA.
Related Research and Looking Ahead
The researchers also note that additional research is necessary in order to better understand veterans’ use of cannabis in the context of federal VA restrictions, “including the examination of how veterans obtain marijuana, what affect this has on their care coordination and health outcomes, and whether or not marijuana can play a role in reducing other drug use and drug-related harms among veterans.”
Another recent survey from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a group representing more than 400,000 veterans, found that 83% of IAVA vets supported legal access to medical cannabis and 55% supported recreational legalization. Additionally, 89% reported that they would be interested in using cannabis if it was available to them.
While the issue of medicinal cannabis access is still ongoing, the VA is already moving forward to explore psychedelics: A number of VA clinicians are already conducting studies specifically looking at the potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy for people who need it.