In Canada, Medical Marijuana Use Among Veterans Is Sharply Up, While Prescription Medication Use Declines

Veterans have been abandoning the use of prescription medication in favor of medical marijuana in their fight against PTSD and chronic pain.

The use of medical marijuana among Canadian veterans is on the rise, and experts surmise it could be attributed to a better knowledge of treatments options among the country’s veterans.

In a report last month, the Canadian Auditor-General warned Veterans Affairs to rein in spending on its coverage of medical marijuana. The spike in medical marijuana use prompted Veterans Affairs to complete a review and develop a policy for veterans seeking medical marijuana for treatment. Government reimbursements for veterans’ pot prescriptions had spiked from fewer than a hundred veterans, costing just $284,000 four years ago to more than 1,700 veterans, costing the department $20 million last year.

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr has stated that he has accepted all of the Auditor-General’s recommendations to create stricter controls on the medical marijuana program. Mr. Hehr has promised an update in the coming months to an ongoing internal review of medical marijuana use among former soldiers. However, veterans are keen to abandon pharmaceuticals for a more natural alternative in medical cannabis.

This rise in veterans using medical cannabis instead of prescription painkillers can likely be linked to a decline in opioid use. Opioid prescriptions among Canadian veterans shrank almost 17% during the past four years. Although it is hard to prove a connection here among Canadian veterans, research done in the U.S. has shown that in states where medical marijuana is available for pain, the use of opioids has decreased, with a 25% lower rate of opioid overdose.

Another reason for the increase in medical marijuana use could be a decrease in the use of benzodiazepines. New data provided to The Globe and Mail by Veterans Affairs Canada show that over the past four years, the number of veterans prescribed benzodiazepines like Xanax, Ativan, and Valium had decreased nearly 30 percent.

Benedikt Fischer, senior scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said pain and sleep issues are the most common reasons medical marijuana is prescribed.

“There’s definitely overlap in the conditions and symptoms for which marijuana as well as opioids and benzos are being used,” Dr. Fischer said.

While the VA and Auditor-General consider the rise in reimbursements as a problem, others see it as a positive step. There is no national level data on yearly opioid deaths in Canada, but in the U.S. in 2014, there were nearly 20,000 deaths related to opioid use. Similarly, there were over 8,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. from benzodiazepines in 2014. These numbers tend to be concentrated among veterans who had seen combat.

Dan Quirion, a 21 year Canadian Forces veteran, said he previously treated the effects of PTSD with prescription drugs but had better results with medical marijuana.

“Soldiers are turning to cannabis because it’s a better relief and a better fit for them,” Quirion said. “It helps them reach a level where – we don’t like to say normal – but they are functional in their daily lives.

Quirion has had veteran friends who didn’t leave their homes for years, but using medical marijuana changed everything for them.

“They’re able to go out, able to have a rapport with society, and are able to bring back their family. In some cases, they had lost family, wives, or husbands,” Quirion said.

Mike Southwell, co-founder of the Canadian-based  Marijuana For Trauma (MFT) organization, said veterans serviced by his clinics say they much prefer cannabis to the harsh pharmaceuticals they were previously prescribed.

“Most of them have been coming off of over 80 percent of their [opioid and benzodiazepine] medications,” said Mr. Southwell, a veteran himself who has stopped using numerous prescriptions for his post-traumatic stress disorder and back pain and now medicates with cannabis instead.

Although data from the Canadian government shows last year’s marijuana prescriptions cost Veterans Affairs much more per patient, at an average of $11,656, than opioids ($316) or benzodiazepines ($73), Mr. Southwell said these costs are offset by former soldiers doing away with prescriptions meant to deal with the side effects, like erectile dysfunction, of other medications.

“We’ve got testimonials rolling every day: ‘I got my husband back.’ ‘I got my life back.’ ‘I’m able to feel again.’ ‘I’m able to love again.’ I’m able to move again.’ ‘I’m able to sleep again,’ Those are amazing statements,” Southwell remarked.

While it is unclear whether reimbursements for medical marijuana will be capped for Canadian veterans, shifting numbers and personal testimonies show that vets far prefer cannabis to traditional prescription medications.

Visit the Medical Marijuana, Inc. education page to learn more about how cannabis might help PTSD and chronic pain.