As the US prepares to honor its veterans on Veteran’s Day, California NORML has been receiving phone calls and emails from vets who are being told by their VA doctors that they must choose between their prescription pain medications or their medical marijuana.
Lurae Horse served in Air Force as airplane mechanic in Panama during the Grenada conflict. An Oglala Lakota Sioux, she joined up at the age of 17, and was raped three times during her service, but didn't report it because she was told she would be discharged. Later, a domestic violence incident left her with brain trauma and an inner ear problem, causing severe vertigo.
One of the side effects of THC is vertigo, but since it seems to spin her in the opposite direction, a neurologist figured out that synthetic THC pills called Marinol, which are prescribable under Schedule II, work for her. “If I have 30 mg of THC everyday, I can function,” Horse said. "Otherwise, I’m in a wheelchair: I instantly throw up and cannot walk.”
Three VA hospitals—in Kansas, South Dakota, and Wyoming—were prescribing her Marinol, Horse says. But when she moved to Long Beach, California in April, the VA there wouldn’t prescribe her Marinol, so she went on medical marijuana instead.
Horse was labeled a “drug addict” in her VA file, and taken off the opiate pain medication Norco by a nurse practitioner at the VA about a month ago. Since she was only on a low dose of Norco, she is able to control the pain she suffers from arthritis and a rotator cuff injury by using the right strains of marijuana, augmented with occasional steroid shots in her shoulder.
She’s more worried about the latest VA pronouncement that she must be “weaned off” her prescription Xanax. She suffers from panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, she says. Without her anti-anxiety meds, Horse says she couldn’t ride buses, or make her doctor appointments. She says her therapist is against the idea of taking her off her medication, but her patient advocate insists it's VA policy. "Month to month I worry, am I going to get my pills or not?” Horse said.
The VA issued a directive in January 2011 stating that patients in pain control treatment who are participating in state marijuana programs “must not be denied VHA services,” adding that “decisions to modify treatment plans in those situations need to be made by individual providers in partnership with their patients.”
This would seem to leave the matter to individual doctors; however many patients in Southern California are reporting that their doctors are making them choose between their prescription drugs or their medical marijuana, claiming that this is VA policy.
Horse says the VA is targeting other medical marijuana patients she has spoken to. Her broader concern is, "They’re going to end up taking somebody’s anxiety medication away, and someone’s going to go really crazy. Not the brightest thing they can do…take them off their meds to keep them calm.”
"I’m Native American; it’s my job to fight the government. I will fight them to my last breath," said Lurae, who is related to the Native American warrior Crazy Horse.
California NORML and Veterans for Cannabis Access are calling for the VA to educate their doctors and bureaucrats about VA's policy on medical marijuana, and conduct a safety study on the use of cannabis with opioid pain relievers. Read more.