Veterans, PTSD, Medical Marijuana, and the Opioid Crisis
Mike Krawitz is a disabled, retired, United States Air Force veteran. Since returning to civilian life, Krawitz has been fighting to change government and VA policies as they relate to medical marijuana. As early as the mid-nineties Krawitz was stumping for the passage of the nation’s first modern medical cannabis bill — California Prop 215. The bill passed in 1996 ushering in the modern era of state-regulated medical cannabis programs.
Today, Mike Krawitz is the Executive Director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis. This non-profit organization works directly with veterans and has been instrumental in educating the VA on the life-saving benefits of medical cannabis and shaping policy at both the state and federal level. Guys like Krawitz are needed now more than ever, as America is in the clutches of an opioid crisis which is taking the lives of veterans at a disproportionately high rate.
I spoke with Krawitz on behalf of cannabis-industry-focused financial website, PotNetwork.com recently about a new bill which was launched by two U.S. senators. The measure is aimed at increasing access to medical cannabis for veterans, providing safe haven from federal law, stemming the tide of opioid overdoses among veterans, and providing a safe alternative to prescription drugs used for other combat-related conditions such as PTSD, MS, cancer, and many others.
The measure, known as Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, allows VA doctors to recommend the use of medical marijuana in accordance with cannabis laws in the state in which a patient resides. It also allocates $15 million to the VA to conduct studies on the use of medical marijuana in pain treatment, and the relationship between medical cannabis programs and prevalence of abuse of opioid painkillers amongst U.S. veterans.
Cannabis vs. Opioids
America is currently facing a menacing enemy. We are in the midst of an opioid crisis of epidemic proportions. According to statistics on DrugAbuse.gov, more than 72,000 deaths were attributed to opioid abuse and overdose in 2017. Opioids account for 63% of all the drug deaths in the United States. However, a number of studies have made headlines recently claiming a correlation between state medical marijuana programs and a reduction in opioid deaths, adding even more urgency to need for sensible cannabis laws.
But, according to Krawitz, the idea of using medical cannabis to treat pain and avoid the overuse of opioids is not a new idea. He says that, in fact, medical cannabis has been known for decades to be a safe alternative to opioids.
“One of the very first things we learned in California from one of our key mentors, Dr. Mikuriya, was how cannabis seemed to be replacing opiates. He saw a majority of patients coming in saying they were using less pills. And, literally, that was the very first observation we made in 1996, 1997. And now it’s been confirmed by so many other pieces of documentation.”
“We’ve got double-blind placebo-based research that says cannabis is an effective pain treatment for some certain kinds of neuropathic pain,” says Krawitz. “We’ve got data coming back from the various government agencies that oversee the payment for these pain pills, seeing that they’re paying for less of the pain pills where the people are using medical marijuana. And that trend has continued with all those patients ever since. It’s no surprise to us that they keep finding more and more ways to show that cannabis is really useful and effective at saving lives by reducing the amount of deadly pills that patients use.”
Government data shows that almost 60% of veterans returning from armed forces in the Middle East and more than 50% of older veterans are in the VA medical system to treat chronic pain.
Some researchers believe that cannabis’ ability to reduce neuropathic pain stems from cannabinoids such as THC and CBD and their ability to help regulate the flow of pain signals within the brain. Additionally, both cannabinoids and the terpenes that give cannabis its distinctive aroma and strong flavor have been shown to interact with opioid receptors in the brain and may greatly enhance the effects of opioids.
“It’s what they call an adjunct pain medicine,” says Krawitz. “And what that means is, it makes the pain medication that they’re taking much, much more effective. So they can take a lot less of it and get a better effect. For some kinds of pain, especially like some of these nerve-related pain, you can just keep taking pills and you’ll never actually really get on top of the pain, and that’s part of the reason why you see so many overdoses in that regard.”
Even still, although opioids can be highly addictive and deadly, it’s marijuana users who are stigmatized as drug abusers, says Krawitz. “We have a lot of vets inside the system that use marijuana and immediately get labeled as a marijuana abuser. It’s really difficult to separate the abusers from the users when they’re so willy-nilly about labeling people.” As a result, veterans are less likely to discuss the use of cannabis with their VA physicians.
Meanwhile, the doctors are both undereducated on the use of cannabis in medicine and reticent to prescribe it. This is not only due to the spectre of federal cannabis laws, but also because the VA actually has a policy which discourages its doctors from discussing the use of cannabis in doctor-patient relations.
Krawitz claims that doctors actually do have the legal right to discuss the use of medical marijuana with their patients simply as a matter for free speech, and that they can do so within the confines of a confidential doctor-patient relationship without fear of reprisal. But those conversations are, apparently, rare at VA clinics and hospitals.
Cannabis vs. PTSD
Krawitz also points out that opioids are not the only problem. Of even greater concern is the high incidence of suicide among combat veterans and lack of safe and effective options for treating PTSD.
“They also have these really problematic pills that they give for post-traumatic stress that actually carry a suicide warning,” says Krawitz. “So you’ve got the drugs that may actually, in certain cases, be increasing or exacerbating the suicide statistics. And many vets that suffer from post-traumatic stress also take the pain pills. So these things cross over, you know? You reduce the amount of pain pills, you reduce the amount of these other drugs, and you have really dramatic differences that you see in veteran’s lives.” He says the data shows that the incidence of suicide among veterans actually is lower in cannabis users.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is characterized, in part, by sudden onset anxiety and panic attacks. Cannabis is known to provide relief from these attacks, in part, by helping to regulate the production of neurotransmitters in areas of the brain related to fear and anxiety. Many veterans suffering from PTSD claim that the efficacy of cannabis is far superior to pharmaceutical drugs for treating the condition.
It seems fairly certain that medical marijuana can indeed save lives and save money by providing veterans and the public at large with a safe and natural alternative to opioids and a host of other dangerous prescription drugs. And it can do so without a high risk of addiction and overdose. In fact, as far as we know, there has never been even one single death attributed to the use of marijuana.