Against their own policy, the Department of Veteran Affairs would rather treat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder with addictive benzodiazepines tranquilizers such as Valium and Xanax - instead of using prohibited medical marijuana, despite studies showing cannabis to be a safer alternative.
Current Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs guidelines caution providers from using benzodiazepines tranquilizers as a treatment for combat related PTSD. "Once initiated, benzodiazepines can be very difficult, if not impossible, to discontinue due to significant withdrawal symptoms compounded by the underlying PTSD symptoms," the VA/Department of Defense guidelines state.
The VA and DoD's current clinical practice guidelines for managing PTSD caution medical providers against using benzodiazepines "due to lack of efficacy data and growing evidence for the potential risk of harm," wrote Nancy Bernardy, a clinical psychologist with the VA's National Center for PTSD, in the PTSD Center's current newsletter.
"Mounting evidence suggests that the long-term harms imposed by benzodiazepine use outweigh any short-term symptomatic benefits in patients with PTSD," Bernardy said.
Meanwhile, a growing body of scientific research shows medical marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for PTSD. Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access compiled more than 20 separate studies that demonstrate the benefits of medical marijuana in the treatment of PTSD -- including the possibility of greatly reducing veteran suicides.
The vast contrast between the VA continuing to prescribe benzodiazepines against their own policies and the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of PTSD is best demonstrated by veterans themselves and their supporters and caregivers.
Testifying before members of the Oregon's Senate Committee on Judiciary, Iraq war veteran Jared Townsend told senators he was there representing five of his friends who have overdosed on drugs prescribed by the VA. Townsend says they killed themselves because of medication that the VA prescribed them to treat PTSD and medical marijuana would be safer.
"Ultimately I believe that's why I've been able to be a productive member again of society," Townsend said. "I couldn't have done it without medical marijuana." (Editor's note: watch Townsend's emotional plea below.)
Alice Foster is a proud mother of an Army veteran, but knew immediately something was wrong when she saw her son - who she asks not to be named - on leave, he was drinking more and not acting like his normal self. Like many soldiers he wouldn't talk to her (or anyone, for that matter).
"Diagnosed with PTSD he was prescribed horrible medication and he went steadily downhill," Foster said. "He would sit on the couch eyes glazed over and drool, the meds did more harm than good."
He began using medical marijuana while still on active duty and he immediately got better, almost overnight, she said. The downside was getting caught using medical marijuana while still in the Army, which forced him to have to leave the service altogether. Foster's son was eventually discharged with medical benefits.
"Today he is doing great," Foster said. "He stopped drinking, graduated from a technical school and employed full time. He loves life again. Medical marijuana saved my son's life and kept him out of prison."
The VA is doing a disservice to the more than a quarter of a million veterans that served in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars during the last 12 years and suffer from PTSD by treating them with addictive benzodiazepines tranquilizers, which is against their own policies.
The VA must immediately put an end to the prohibition on medical marijuana and allow it to be part of veteran treatment plans. Since PTSD isn't a qualifying condition in all states, a program must be developed to supply veterans with cannabis so they don't have to go to the black market for their medicine. Veterans served with honor and its time that the VA honors these men and woman with medicines that aren't addictive so our vets no longer have to suffer now that they are home.
Toke of the Town contributor Steven W. Giles is a Vietnam Veteran, serving in the United States Coast Guard. He is an advocate for veteran medical marijuana rights.