Leaving our soldiers behind: Michael Krawitz of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access on The VA’s marijuana policies
At the risk of sounding cliché, Americans veterans are fighting an ongoing war on two fronts, both home and abroad. For many, the battle just begins when they come home, as they struggle to adjust to civilian life. Recent statistics show that just under 50 percent of veterans are active in the labor force, meaning that nearly 10 million are unemployed or looking for a job. Issues of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder have hit this community hard, with some statistics showing that over 20 veterans are lost to suicide every day.
The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t been much help. Although research shows medical marijuana could greatly benefit veterans on many of their issues, the department mainly lands on the side of cannabis is prohibited under federal law, therefore not allowing their doctors to recommend it. While the VA won’t deny benefits because of cannabis use, they won’t help veterans access what could be lifesaving medication for some.
In part two of PotNetwork’s exclusive interview with Michael Krawitz, the Executive Director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, Michael discusses medical cannabis use among veterans, the ongoing opioid epidemic, and his thoughts about the current state of healthcare among his peers.
Let’s talk about the opioid crisis and how it’s affected veterans? Give us your overall opinion and thoughts on the matter.
I’ll tell you; I go back a ways in my activism. I was a big player, you know, handing out flyers and trying to get Prop 215 passed in California. And one of the very first things we learned in California from one of our key mentors out there, Dr. Mikuriya. The very first thing we learned, I would say, was how cannabis seemed to be replacing opiates. He saw a majority of patients coming in saying they were using less pills. And that was the very first observation we made in 1996, 1997. And now it’s been confirmed by so many other pieces of documentation.
I mean, first of all, we’ve got double-blind placebo-based research that says cannabis is an effective pain treatment for some certain kinds of neuropathic pain. 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.
The common thing you hear from patients is that “I can use cannabis and I use less pills.” And they seem happy with that, very proud about that, on a bunch of different levels. Veterans tell me they can function better; they’re not in a haze, they’re not in a fog all the time. And, again, that matches up with the wider patient populations out there in the country.
Studies do show that people are successfully replacing pain pill with cannabis.
So it’s just 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.
And it’s not just pain pills, the oxycodone or whatever, they also have these really problematic pills that they give for post-traumatic stress that actually carry a suicide warning.
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?
So, 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. So, I’m reading right off the bill. “Congress finds that chronic pain affects the veteran population with almost 60 percent of veterans returning from armed forces in the Middle East and more that 50 percent of older veterans are using the healthcare system for some sort of chronic pain. And opioids account for 63 percent of all the drug deaths in the United States.” It’s pretty sad.
And cannabis can do more than just replace pain pills, correct?
At Veterans for Medical Access, you know, we try to work with what we’ve got and what we’ve got are these really, really strong correlations and statistics. But there’s also a certain amount of evidence, pharmacologically, that cannabis actually reduces suicidal tendencies.
With pain, it seems to really help. It’s what they call an adjunct pain medicine. 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.
There is no limit to the amount of pain medications you can take, you just keep taking it and if you don’t take it — you know. If you take it long-term, little bit by little bit increasing it, you can actually increase your dose wildly. But if you increase your dose in a short period of time, of course, you overdose. You’ve got to separate them out from people that are taking drugs of abuse for their addictive qualities — people that are suffering from addiction.
These things overlap a little bit. And we have a lot of vets inside the system that use marijuana and immediately get labeled as a marijuana abuser because they’re using marijuana. It’s really difficult to separate the abusers from the users when they’re so willy-nilly about labeling people.
Are there any other common conditions among veterans for which you feel marijuana is a better option than current pharmaceuticals?
Anything that you can use it for is better than the pharmaceuticals! Even compared to Tylenol. But the thing is, veterans suffer from things that the public at large also suffer from. We’re just more likely to suffer it for our population. You know, in other words, the per capita incidence is very high.
So, we have a lot of traumatic brain injury. Think about phantom limb pain. That’s the most extreme form of neuropathic pain. You have, kind of, exposure issues to multiple sclerosis-like conditions and nerve-related disorders abound in the veteran community.
And cannabis is proven effective for multiple sclerosis. There’s drugs in the pipeline right now, they’re in the final phases of production around the world, to treat multiple sclerosis with cannabis products. This is very, very well-known stuff. Cancer — you know, cancer was the first thing really well-proven, I think, cannabis for cancer pain. That’s why the old Virginia law from 1978 had cancer and glaucoma in it because cancer and glaucoma were the first things they looked at. And, for glaucoma, cannabis is an eye saver, it can really save your sight, but it’s probably not the first-line medicine. I say that because cannabis is usually a first-line medicine.
So, there’s nothing better than cannabis is what you’re saying?
Like, for pain, there’s absolutely no reason why you would try something else before cannabis, there’s nothing else that’s less dangerous than cannabis, more effective than cannabis. For the bang for the buck, as far as side effects, there’s no reason to not use cannabis first.
But, for glaucoma, that’s probably not the case. Talk to a doctor, but it seems to me, from the material that I’ve read, that for glaucoma you would try to use the standard medications first.
But, with cancer treatment, they go through those standard medications rather quickly sometimes, and they don’t help, or they’re not effective for that patient for one reason or another. And cannabis for chemotherapy, nausea, and pain is extremely well documented. And of course, you know, veterans suffer huge amounts of cancer-related stuff — like a Navy guy who’s pulling asbestos out of ships.
So there is a higher per capita instance amongst veterans of cancer as well as these other conditions?
I don’t know if I can answer that authoritatively, from the statistics, but I believe so, yeah. I think veterans lead the pack on all these things. Post-traumatic stress used to be called battle fatigue, it was actually associated with the military. And I think it’s become disassociated with the military for good reason because, if you look at it in public, you’re going to find an awful lot of people that have suffered mass trauma that are suffering from post-traumatic stress.
So, you have a lot of veterans that have suffered in the battlefield, and then you talk to them, and you find out, indeed, they have a history of trauma, maybe some childhood trauma or something else in their history. And it’s not a coincidence to me, it’s probably, likely, cumulative.
But yeah, you know, I think we’re on the right track here. As I understand it, Mr. Nelson hadn’t signed onto a bill before. So this is really great stuff.
Again, from our organization’s perspective, a bill like this is a win-win because we need to educate the system. And I’m sure the VA reads these bills.