Clarify Pot Policy for Veterans

Today I wrote a short viewpoint for the Star Phoenix. The article is on medical cannabis for Canadian veterans.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson has raised important questions about the increasing use of medical marijuana by Canadian military veterans.

As authorities contemplate enforcement actions and zoning bylaws relevant to marijuana dispensaries, and the federal Liberal government prepares for legalization in 2017, Ferguson is urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to address the amount of medical cannabis being prescribed to veterans. He found the quantity prescribed was “poorly documented” and not always evidence-based.

Ferguson focused more broadly on how Veterans Affairs has been managing drug benefits for former servicemen and women, some of whom have complicated health issues and suffer from mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The AG made it plain that it’s time to cut through the haze and clarify marijuana policy for veterans.

The core problem rests with the amount of cannabis veterans are authorized to take. In 2014, Veterans Affairs doubled the amount to 10 grams per day for eligible veterans. Yet, for Health Canada this is twice the amount it considers safe. An internal Health Canada document showed that more than five grams has the potential to increase risks to the cardiovascular, pulmonary and immune systems, as well as psychomotor performance. It has a chance of increasing the risk of drug dependence.

Ferguson’s office could not find any evidence to support this decision to increase the threshold. Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr expressed shock in March that his department lacked an “informed policy” on the use of medical cannabis, even as number of claims by veterans for medical marijuana grew more than tenfold over the past two years.

According to figures provided by Veterans Affairs, 112 veterans were reimbursed for medical marijuana in 2013-14, The following year, it was 628. By March 2016 that number has risen to 1,320.

Mike Blais, president and founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, has been abundantly clear about veterans’ consumption of medical marijuana: “I think there should be no cap, and that every case should be judged on individual merit and that the doctor’s prescription is paramount.”

At the same time, Canadian Forces have taken an alternative stand. In 2014, H.C. MacKay who was then the deputy surgeon general of the Canadian Forces, made clear that “with respect to marijuana use for medical purposes, we have identified what appears to be a very significant policy divergence between Veterans Affairs Canada and Canadian Armed Forces.”

In short, even though Veterans Affairs was funding medical marijuana, the military’s health service did not recognize it for medical use. With respect to PTSD, the Canadian Forces have also suggested there is insufficient evidence to authorize marijuana use and could even be detrimental to veterans’ health.

Marijuana remains a highly contested medicine for various scientific, political and social reasons. That is obvious. However, the auditor general report reaffirms how it and the policies surrounding the medical treatments for Canadian veterans require significant clarification.

Lucas Richert teaches the history of pharmaceutical and recreational drugs at the University of Saskatchewan.

Below the CBC covers the story.

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