The Florida Department of Health has just over a month to decide on new laws that will govern the medical marijuana industry in the state. Regardless of what ends up being implemented, one group will continue to have an uphill battle to get the medicine they prefer.
Earlier this month, Florida House Bill 1397 died on the Senate floor in the final hours of the regular session, leaving the future of medical cannabis in the hands of the Office of Compassionate Use. They now have until July 3 to implement rules and regulations that will impact patients, doctors and businesses across the state.
Marijuana, however, currently remains a federally prohibited substance, considered more dangerous than fentanyl or oxycodone. Therefore, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has consistently refused to prescribe it or even acknowledge its medicinal properties.
First Coast News reached out to the VA requesting an interview with a doctor to discuss the issue of medical marijuana, but was only provided the following statement:
As a federal agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is required to comply with the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (Title 21 United States Code (U.S.C.) 801 et al). Under this act marijuana (cannabis) is listed as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance (no therapeutic use) and cannot be prescribed. VHA may not prescribe or facilitate access to medical marijuana.”
This decision affects over 11.5 million veterans living in the 29 states where marijuana has been legalized in some capacity. Over 1.4 million of those vets live in Florida, making it the third largest veteran populated state in the country.
While some veterans are willing to wait the required 90 days to be put on the Compassionate Use Registry and risk potential repercussions, others are turning to the black market to get the medicine they need now.
“I know a lot of people who are scared to talk about it,” Weed for Warriors representative Jim Johns told First Coast News during an interview at his office in Lake City. “They are scared to try and even attempt to get their medical card because they are scared that the VA is going to take their benefits away."
Johns spent four years in the United States Marine Corps and was deployed twice to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was injured while serving and now suffers from ongoing back problems he says VA doctors have only wanted to treat with prescription opioids.
“When I went in there this last time he prescribed me four different things, a muscle relaxer, something for the inflammation and there were two other things, but I just had to stop him,” Johns explained. “I was like, ‘Doc, I’m not even going to pick these up.’”
Eventually diagnosed by the Veterans Health Administration as having epilepsy, Johns was told that he would to quit using marijuana if doctors were going to treat him. Then came the night he had a seizure and was turned away by a VA doctor for smelling like marijuana.
“The emergency room doctor at the VA straight up told the nurse that he was unwilling to see me, he was not going to go in there and see me, that the nurse had to do it because I smelt like marijuana.”
Johns, who has continued to self-medicate with cannabis, says he is now listed as being “marijuana dependent” in his official medical records kept by the VHA. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation for injured veterans that are looking for an alternative to addictive opioids.
Navy veteran Robert Roundtree at one point had to enter drug rehabilitation for the plethora of pharmaceutical drugs he was being prescribed by VA doctors and had unknowingly become addicted to.
“It’s not like it is a cure-all or anything, but it works good enough that what the pharmaceuticals did, you know, it works better than that and it doesn’t have all the side effects to it,” Roundtree said. “If I don’t have my cannabis for a day, like, I’m not going to be lying in bed sweating bullets, puking, shaking, wondering if I’m going to die like opiates will have you do.”
That’s the most important issue for veterans like Roundtree, who was taking as much as 250 milligrams of oxycodone a day to manage the pain from his injured back. Before kicking his addictions, Roundtree said he had been prescribed close to 20 different pharmaceutical drugs, including Xanax, Ativan and Klonopin, all known to be highly addictive.
Roundtree says he was eventually discharged from the military for self-prescribing marijuana to treat his PTSD. He now works for the nonprofit organization Buds for Vets, which aims to connect veterans with doctors who can help them get registered for medical cannabis. However, an increasing number of vets are willing to forgo the legal route, according to Roundtree, because they can’t wait the required 90 days.
“A lot of people are deciding to remain criminals, essentially, you know, because a lot of people are just wanting to become patients legally,” Roundtree said. “You know, we’re already using the medicine.”
Roundtree, who admits he is one of those veterans who is forgoing the quasi-legal route to medical cannabis, says he’s seen as many as 15 patients die before they can get through the 90-day waiting period.
“We are treating ourselves, we are getting off medication, families are being repaired, cancer patients are gaining weight during chemo,” Roundtree attested. “I mean it’s ridiculous to think that we have to do this still, but it is what it is. So, we’ll get the medicine by any means necessary.”
Despite restrictive access and the possibility of repercussions, some medical marijuana clinics in Jacksonville are seeing an increase in veterans coming to them for consultation. Liberate Physician Centers says between 70 and 80 percent of the patients they see are in fact veterans.
Melissa Blake is the managing director of Liberate Physician Centers in Jacksonville and one of her primary responsibilities is screening potential marijuana patients before they see the doctor. Blake told First Coast News that the veterans she sees are very open and upfront about their military past, because they are concerned about the possibility of losing their VA benefits.
“One of their first questions is, are they going to lose their benefits if they do try to qualify to get a medical marijuana card,” said Blake, a question she admittedly can’t answer for those veterans.
According to Blake, Liberate Physician Centers doesn’t disclose the company’s intentions to the VHA when requesting medical records. They leave it up to the veterans to discuss medical marijuana with VHA doctors if they chose to.
Dr. Carl Hardy is just one of the resident doctors Liberate Physician Centers has hired to see patients during their 90-day waiting period. Hardy, who is a board-certified anesthesiologist, says he first learned about the beneficial uses of marijuana when he worked as a pharmacist.
“I think everything has to be done to make it accessible,” Hardy said. “I think they are doing the right thing by trying to regulate it, so it is used properly, but to prohibit it inappropriately or to create systems where some folks can get relief and some folks can’t, is just unfair.”
Scenes from today's medical cannabis rally in Orlando. The message: Legislators need to call a special session & repeal the 90-day wait. pic.twitter.com/pTwHpNsk3V— Jordan Ferrell (@J_E_Ferrell) May 18, 2017
But it’s not just veterans who feel like they are being oppressed by the state system. Florida Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Winter Park, is among those that are demanding action. He recently spoke out against the current rules governing medical cannabis at a rally in Orlando.
“Why is there a 90-day waiting period for cannabis?” he asked the excitable crowd gathered in front of the Orange County Health Department. “I will tell you why, because Big Pharma, that is right, Big Pharma has dominated the market for decades. They have price gouged patients and driven up the costs of healthcare in Florida and now they are threatened by medical cannabis."
Rep. Smith mentioned several times during his speech the lack of rules enforcing mandatory waiting periods for prescription drugs like Xanax, Hydrocodone and Fentanyl, which is responsible for more overdoses than any other pharmaceutical in the state.
Hardy openly admits more research needs to be done on the medical benefits of cannabis, but the current state system is creating “artificial barriers” that are keeping preferred medicine out of the hands of suffering patients. And the 90-day waiting period may just be the tip of the iceberg.
“We think the 90-day waiting period is arbitrary, unnecessary and serves no purpose,” Hardy said. Someone is benefiting from it, and that's a very important question that should probably be investigated."
Veterans like Johns are hopeful the VA will change its stance on medical marijuana, but for now, that decision seems solely based on its classification at the federal level.
“You know, these people are warriors and they are going to do whatever they have to do, regardless of the consequences,” Johns said. “It’s between dying or going to jail. I mean, which would you chose?”