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Researchers hope a national cannabis survey for U.S. military veterans will help educate elected officials, government department heads, and the public about the health benefits of cannabis use by those who served in the military.

In March 2019, a coalition of academic, medical and veterans' groups launched the Veterans Health and Medical Cannabis Research Study to understand veterans health status, treatments, medications, cannabis use, access to insurance, and quality of life.

Preliminary data from the anonymous study, which includes no identifying details about respondents, already has shown that veterans are reducing the need for over-the-counter prescriptions for pain and stomach ailments, and reducing or eliminating the use of opioids for chronic pain. , 

Though veterans' groups nationwide have pushed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to employ medical cannabis treatments, particularly for post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), the agency follows federal law, which considers cannabis an illegal narcotic with no medical value.

Researchers are seeking to expand their participant pool nationwide to collect enough data to convince officials that cannabis has medicinal value. To participate in the study, click on this link

A series of public forums, the Cannabis Advancement Series, is traveling throughout Massachusetts to present findings and related study information from experts such as Dr. Sue Sisley, who recently completed the first federally funded clinical trial for cannabis as a PTSD treatment for veterans.

Lead researcher Dr. Marion McNabb, CEO of the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN), detailed the preliminary results and ultimate goals of the survey in a recent interview.

Q: Tell me about your group, Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) and the cannabis survey you're conducting about veterans related to harm reduction in the time of the opioid epidemic. What are the most important results you've found so far?

A: Key points that we found surprising are that 67% in the study from March 3 until now--141 veterans in Massachusetts--used cannabis to reduce the use of prescription or over-the-counter medications. That research gained more support when Dr. Dustin Sulak from Maine presented several other studies that found similar trends of patients, veterans,  and consumers using cannabis to reduce unwanted prescription medications. He currently runs Integr8 Clinics, is a doctor of osteopathy and specializes in helping patients get off of pain medicines. He's published peer-reviewed medical literature on cannabis.

Q: What other significant results have you discovered in the study of veterans?

A: We asked veterans now that you are doing this yourself, are you making your VA healthcare provider aware? Sixty percent say their doctors are aware but don't know if they approve it. (Doctors) have their hands tied by the Veterans Administration as far as talking about cannabis. We're leaving our veterans in a predicament in which their doctors don't tell them a safer alternative to opioids is available, but they are seeking it out on their own.

Q: Do veterans of different wars have different responses in the study?

A: The Vietnam vets and the younger ones from the Gulf and Iraq wars are very different. They've been exposed to different chemicals and injuries. The Vietnam veterans faced a lot of hardship when they returned and were not celebrated for their service. They are an older population, part of the reefer madness generation, to understand the history of stigma. We need to have different ways of educating different age groups. They prefer different types of cannabis and ingestion. Those who are 29 know what a dabber is; the Vietnam vets don't.

Q: What would be the ideal scenario to help veterans with PTSD and chronic pain?

A: There's documented evidence that cannabis is working…but if we have the $10 million we would like to have, should we spend it on research or make sure all veterans have access to cannabis available to them? … Veterans in Massachusetts are three times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than those in the rest of the country. We are committed to doing everything in our power to amplify the issue, (but) we are at a time when everyone is saying we need more research. The DAV (Disabled American Veterans) of Massachusetts has spent $50,000 to help veterans—and it identified PTSD as a real problem for veterans and for others who have dealt with trauma.

Q: What made you quit your university position to pursue studying cannabis as part of this nonprofit group you co-founded two years ago with Randal McCaffrie, Chief Innovation Officer of your advocacy and network group? 

A: I intentionally left academia because I knew I couldn't study it properly—it's a restriction of scientific freedom. It's important now to get the word out about that. I worked on the HIV epidemic in Africa before there was an HIV test. Then HIV treatment became available and it was completely unaffordable. The world rallied around to make the HIV drugs available. You're making a choice between life and health. An 8-year-old who requires CBD oil for epilepsy needs our support. How many families had to move to California and Colorado to treat their children? People should be able to afford their healthcare and have access to balanced research about it.

Q: What's the greatest challenge of your work in crowdsourcing and collecting anecdotal evidence and aggregating that into research?

A: As a public health doctor of 25 years with three advanced degrees and international experience, it's spending time making five phone calls and talking for hours to get each dispensary to agree to sponsor the survey. We're making connections, we want them to participate and provide sponsorship and we provide data back. There's a real need for the industry in cannabis to understand if they want us to fight for them they need to support research that helps them, too. Not only for medical benefits but for access for people. You can't create a mega-business without investing in the community and giving back. As this industry grows, it will be the third boom after the tech industry. They can change the world like Microsoft did. To make someone like Dr.  Sisley fight for 10 years to do research is absurd. These people are helping you—we are business partners and we are working with consumers.

Q: You've done three of six planned education events, including a talk from Dr. Sue Sisley, who worked on a study for 10 years on veterans and cannabis; and Stephen Mandile, a veteran who says he cured his depression and health issues with cannabis and founded Veterans Alternative Healing. What is the most gratifying aspect of that so far?

A: I think the presentation of the research was very successful. …The last forum gave a careful and thoughtful look at medical cannabis as part of the right mix for addiction, mental health, and therapy options for cannabis. Those two presentations were great to frame where we are in science and in medical practice. Dr. Sisley's talk was very powerful. She had to work with poor quality cannabis from the University of Mississippi, with stems and sticks and moldy leaves. That's unacceptable. We fully intended in the design of the study to analyze and present a policy report and highlight issues around spending and the need for free access. [Providing] data on spending, insurance companies, improved quality of life measures, etc. It's not only impacting our veterans who served their country and fought for freedom, but also their families and all of the people around them. We're thinking from a broader perspective.

Q: How do you feel about the support C3RN is getting for a national survey?

A:  Weedmaps and the DAV are partnering with us to expand it into other states. We want to see if we find differences in other states and will use a health survey tool to find out how trends are changing. We're very much excited to go national, but we're still looking for partners to reach out and support it and work with us.

We're grateful for the backing of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Healing Rose, and other groups that are providing support, too. We are able to talk to legislators, communities, and academics and we think that will impact policy.

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