By LAURA HUSSEY, WEAR
PENSACOLA, Fla. (WEAR) - As the opioid crisis continues, some veterans say medical marijuana would be much safer for treating problems like pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some believe making it available to vets could actually save lives.
Right now, the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, alongside many opioids. That means VA doctors can't recommend medical marijuana to veterans, even when it's legal in their states. Matthew Rumple, a 21-year Army and Air Force veteran, finds that ironic.
He said, "We have more of the worst drugs in our systems now than that could ever do to us."
Rumple grew up hating drugs and ended up addicted to drugs, specifically opioids. It started when he was given morphine after an injury in Iraq.
He said, "I liked the high. I loved the invincible, destroy-everything-kill mode, not realizing that the one thing I hated the most had now become the one way I could survive."
Clean since 2015, he now works to help other veterans. He said many are seeing ill effects from drugs prescribed by the VA, an assortment that varies by individual and has come to be known as the "combat cocktail."
He explained, "Psychotropic drug, painkiller, blood pressure. Anytime they give you something, they're going to give you an additional medication to counteract the side effects from the first one. It has become a nightmare. For a lot of guys, it starts their world of opioids."
Brenda Ross became dependent on opioids from a workplace injury, years after her service in the Alabama National Guard. Medical marijuana helped her stop taking them.
She said, "I think that medical marijuana is the best answer that we have, not just for intractable pain, but for veterans that are suffering from PTSD. The cocktails are killing people, veterans are dying every day, they are committing suicide and they deserve the option."
Rumple prefers the term cannabis to differentiate medical marijuana from the street drug. He does not use it because he's unsure of its effects and because the VA is a federal agency.
"The federal government has got a law against it. It's a criminal act," he exclaimed. "So, which do you want to lose? You want to lose your VA benefits or you want to be out of pain?"
He wants more research and wants veterans to be given every option that might help them, including medical marijuana. Rumple continued, "You're looking at a world that would rather you be quiet and take what we tell you than to let's hear your story and help you."
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., plans to present legislation that would loosen restrictions on medical marijuana research and partially lift the VA "gag rule," allowing doctors to tell vets about research trials in their area. He has already introduced a bill to reclassify marijuana from a schedule 1 drug to a schedule 3, in a class with steroids. That bill is currently in a House committee.
The VA implemented an opioid safety initiative in 2013 and has worked to reduce the use of opioids. The agency says between 2012 and 2017, it has cut opioid prescription rates by 41 percent.