Ottawa is reimbursing a record number of veterans for medical marijuana, with new figures showing the federal government shelled out more than $150 million in the last fiscal year, more than double the amount from just ago three years.
And that’s just the beginning, as figures from Veterans Affairs Canada show the government is on track to spend nearly $200 million this year, as more veterans ask the government to pay for their cannabis.
While experts and advocates are unsure of the reasons for the increase, they agree on the need for more information about the real benefits and potential harms of medical marijuana for veterans — and taxpayers. who pay the price.
“We desperately need better evidence to understand whether these policies and whether current use are likely to have more benefit or do more harm,” said Jason Busse, associate director of the Michael G. DeGroote Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University.
“We don’t know at the moment.”
Veterans Affairs began reimbursing a small number of ex-servicemen for their medical cannabis in 2008, when approvals were granted on an extremely limited basis and with medical specialist approval.
The move follows a series of court rulings more than 20 years ago that first allowed a legal exemption for medical marijuana use from criminal prosecution.
Then, in 2014, Health Canada relaxed its rules regarding who could allow Canadians to use medical marijuana and under what conditions and circumstances. The new rules did not impose a limit on the amount of pot that could be allowed, nor on the cost.
At the time, Veterans Affairs was reimbursing 112 veterans for their pot, at a cost of $409,000. By the following year, that number had grown to over 600, at a total cost of over $1.7 million – with no end to the increase in sight.
Figures provided by the department to Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay in June for questions in the House of Commons show the government reimbursed more than 18,000 ex-servicemen for $153 million in medical marijuana claims in 2021-2022.
“For fiscal year 2022-23, program spending is projected to be $195.2 million,” the note adds.
Skyrocketing claims and costs continued despite the Liberal government’s decision in 2016 to limit claims to three grams per day at $8.50 per gram, with an allowance of up to 10 grams per day with medical clearance.
The limits prompted an outburst of anger from veterans and advocates who said the limits would negatively affect them, although the memo to MacAulay said one in five veterans were receiving more than three grams a day.
By comparison, Health Canada says the number of Canadians across the country registered to use medical marijuana, which is normally paid for by insurance companies, fell to 257,000 in December 2021 from 345,000 in October 2018.
Officials of the British Columbia-based Veterans Transition Network, which provides peer support and counseling programs to former members of the Armed Forces, have seen firsthand the explosive growth in the use of medical marijuana by veterans in recent years.
“Seeing these numbers of year-over-year growth, in my view, is consistent with what we’ve seen in terms of the normalization of things in the veteran care landscape,” the director said. executive Oliver Thorne.
The network’s national clinic director, Dr. Paul Whitehead, estimated that about half of veterans in the organization’s programs now use some sort of cannabis product for medical reasons, although the type , the exact frequency and dosage vary widely.
Experts have cited a number of potential reasons for the increase, including the COVID-19 pandemic, wider awareness, less stigma around cannabis use, and the emergence of a multi-million dollar industry. around the medical pot for veterans.
Some veterans and advocates have argued that the rise of medical cannabis has helped reduce the use of opioids and other narcotics.
Although he couldn’t say if that was true, Whitehead reported a decrease in alcohol consumption among his organization’s clients.
Yet he and others have also pointed to the many questions that remain about whether medical marijuana really helps veterans — and if so, how and why.
“We’re convinced there’s absolutely an upside because veterans tell us that, and they tell us that frequently,” Thorne said. “But we don’t know how. And I think that’s what we really need to know: how does it work? Why does it work?
Busse attempted to answer some of these questions at McMaster. What he has found so far is a lack of real data on the impacts of medical marijuana, with available data showing little to no impact on most people with chronic pain or mental health issues. sleep.
Even the studies that have been conducted have been extremely limited, Busse added, with little information about the impact on people with post-traumatic stress disorder or even the long-term impacts of cannabis use.
The lack of concrete information comes despite the fact that the federal government has repeatedly promised over the years to fund research into the matter. Busse blamed Health Canada regulations and red tape for preventing large-scale clinical studies.
“It wasn’t until (this week) that we finally got permission to conduct our first trial, although we got funding over two years ago,” he said. “And I know a lot of companies have just given up on doing clinical trials in Canada.”
Veterans Affairs would not speak publicly about planned changes to its reimbursement rules, but officials told MacAulay in June that because this is “an evolving area of treatment, Veterans Affairs Canada regularly reviews the latest available evidence. and adjusts its policy as needed.
Although Thorne and Whitehead have heard from veterans testifying to the benefits of medical marijuana, and the Veterans Transition Network does not support limiting access, there are concerns that some former service members are using the drug to avoid their psychological trauma rather than to face it.
“We’d like to see the number of expenses increase each year for consulting programs, whether it’s ours or another,” Thorne said. “We’d like to see that kind of similar adoption.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 7, 2022.