Numerous organizations, parks, and college campuses across the country have announced they will display 22 U.S. flags this year for Veteran’s Day. Thousands will take up the 22 Push-Up Challenge or hang 22 dog tags on Witting Trees, named for the definition of witting: a purposeful act to emphasize awareness. In this case, people are raising awareness about the fact that an estimated 22 veterans per day commit suicide. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released a report on Sept. 20, 2019, confirming that at least 60,000 veterans had died by suicide between 2008 and 2017. The tide of veteran suicides rose nearly 50% during that period and has increased over four of the last five years on record, with an annual average of 7,300 veterans taking their own lives. A National Institutes of Health study confirmed that the most common medical problems facing military veterans today are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicide. Veterans kill themselves at a rate of 22% greater than the general population.

In the 2019 report, the VA says that reducing veteran suicide is a top priority, but some ask why the agency is not looking more closely at one of the most obvious viable solutions: cannabis.

“We know that suicide is related to untreated or undertreated (PTSD),” said Dr. Sue Sisley, principal investigator at the Scottsdale Research Institute (SRI) where she and her colleagues are undertaking the first randomized controlled clinical trials in the world to examine the safety and efficacy of smoked whole-plant cannabis flower to treat PTSD. “We also know that cannabis is helping veterans deal with the symptoms of PTSD, so we owe it to them and their families to study it rigorously regardless of the onerous barriers.”  

Though Sisley and her team’s PTSD studies are functioning with approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS), they still face obstacles, most notably from the VA, the organization dedicated to helping veterans.

“Our government-approved studies with veterans and cannabis may have helped uncover a new treatment for people with PTSD, yet the VA refuses to cooperate with our trials,” Sisley said. 

Researchers are asking the VA to help with cannabis research. The VA isn’t answering the call. 

Robert Kowalski, president and founder of Ohio-based Veterans Ending the Stigma (VETS), believes that the VA’s healthcare system is failing the veterans who need medical cannabis.

“The VA has the resources and ability to answer and supply the data and research needed to include cannabis in modern medicine,” Kowalski told Weedmaps News. “But the reality is that politics and personal views are still prohibiting this to move forward and our veterans are suffering because of it.”

Despite the FDA’s approval of the PTSD trials, the VA continues to treat marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. So long as that federal classification exists, the VA cannot recommend or prescribe it. VA healthcare providers and other employees are also prohibited from advocating or helping veterans obtain medical cannabis.

Nevertheless, according to Sisley, they still try. Sisley told Weedmaps News that VA doctors, nurses, and physical therapists covertly call the SRI team asking how they can get patients into their PTSD study. Sisley called the VA’s reluctance to work with SRI shameful and the ultimate hypocrisy.

“The VA is always saying ‘We need more research, we need more rigorous trials looking at cannabis,’ which is exactly what we’re doing…the VA has a golden opportunity to cooperate with us,” Sisley said.

It’s not as though combat veterans haven’t been using cannabis to help with PTSD already. Many who do find that it works and feel the need to share it with the world, Sisley said. Aaron Augustis is one of those veterans. Augustis was a U.S. Army sergeant who served in a combat role in Iraq in 2003. When he returned home, he almost immediately began experiencing PTSD symptoms.

“I started having uncontrollable waves of emotion that would come on suddenly. When you return home from a war, bottled up emotions can be triggered by lots of different things,” Augustis said. “Hearing about soldiers being killed is a common trigger for combat vets, even the smell of diesel fuel can take you back.” 

Augustis said cannabis helped him and many other veterans he knows treat PTSD symptoms, which eventually propelled him to co-found the Veterans Cannabis Group (VCG). The California-based organization provides a safe space for veterans to learn more about managing their PTSD symptoms and other health issues.

One of the issues veterans have been concerned about in recent years, Augustis said, was whether their VA benefits would be taken from them if they tested positive for marijuana. Augustis stressed that the VA no longer penalizes veterans who test positive for cannabis if they live in a state with legal medical marijuana or adult-use laws. 

There are many obstacles when it comes to cannabis research. 

Despite the blessing from various government agencies, Sisley’s PTSD study still faces obstacles, not the least of which is access to acceptable research cannabis. 

Since 1968, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been the only legal source for federally sanctioned research marijuana, which is grown at the University of Mississippi.

Sisley and other researchers have complained that Ole Miss’s cannabis is poor quality, sometimes moldy and its THC and cannabidiol (CBD) levels are less potent than strains available in dispensaries. With different strains all mixed together, including stems and leaves, Sisley explained that the natural elements found in cannabis flowers cannot be properly isolated, ultimately affecting the correlations between strain and medicinal effect. This, she said, compromises the study’s results.

Sisley went to court in June 2019 and petitioned the Attorney General to order the DEA to process the SRI’s application, and others, that will allow them to grow their own research cannabis. In a lawsuit, the SRI argued that the DEA was stalling on cultivation applications from universities and research institutions, 33 in all, therefore hampering scientific studies.

It has been over three years since the DEA announced it intended to expand its cannabis cultivation process to include additional producers. Alas, the federal court dismissed the SRI’s case on October 18, 2019, arguing that the DEA had fulfilled its requirements. Sisley and her colleagues at SRI are not happy but they’re not giving up. 

“By delaying these 33 applications, the administration has prevented our U.S. scientists from investigating the clinical efficacy of real-world cannabis to treat combat veterans with PTSD,” Sisley said.

But not all is lost. The decision allows Sisley and her team to return to court for additional relief if, she added, “Trump’s DOJ/DEA continues to violate the law and put public health at risk through delay or otherwise.”

Feature image by Sergei Prokhorov/Shutterstock. 

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