Ottawa on track to spend $200 million per year on cannabis for veterans

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 three years ago.

And that’s just the beginning, as figures from Veterans Affairs Canada reveal the government is on track to spend nearly $200 million this year as more and more former service members ask the government to pay for their cannabis.

While experts and advocates are unsure about the reasons for the increase, they agree on the need for more information about the actual benefits and potential harms of medical marijuana for veterans and the taxpayers who pay for it.

“We desperately need better evidence to understand whether these policies … and whether current use is likely to have more benefit or cause more harm,” said Jason Busse, associate director of the Michael G. DeGroote Center for Medical Cannabis Research at McMaster. . University.

“We don’t know that at this point.”

Veterans Affairs began reimbursing a small number of former military personnel for their medical cannabis in 2008, at which time approvals were granted on an extremely limited basis and with the approval of a medical specialist.

The move followed a series of court decisions 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 on who could license Canadians to use medical marijuana and for what conditions and circumstances. The new rules did not put a limit on the amount of marijuana that could be authorized or the cost.

Veterans Affairs at the time was reimbursing 112 former service members for their boat, at a cost of $409,000. By the following year, that number had grown to more than 600, at a total cost of more than $1.7 million, with no end in sight to the increase.

Figures provided by the department to Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay in June for questions in the House of Commons show that the government reimbursed more than 18,000 ex-servicemen for $153 million in medical marijuana claims in 2021-22.

“For fiscal year 2022-23, program expenses are anticipated to be $195.2 million,” the note adds.

The skyrocketing claims and costs have 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.

Those limits sparked an outburst of anger from veterans and advocates who said the limits would negatively affect them, even though the note to MacAulay said that one in five veterans received more than three grams a day.

By comparison, Health Canada says the number of Canadians nationwide registered to use medical marijuana, which is normally paid by insurance companies, fell to 257,000 in December 2021 from 345,000 in October 2018.

Officials at the British Columbia-based Veterans Transition Network, which provides peer counseling and support programs for former members of the Armed Forces, have seen firsthand the explosive growth in medical marijuana use by veterans. veterans in recent years.

“Looking at those numbers… just the year-over-year growth, in my opinion, fits in with what we’ve seen in terms of how mainstream the veterans care landscape has become,” said CEO Oliver Thorne. .

The network’s national clinic director, Dr. Paul Whitehead, estimated that about half of veterans participating in the organization’s programs now use some type of cannabis product for medical reasons, although the exact type, frequency and dosage vary significantly.

Experts cited a number of potential reasons for the increase, including the COVID-19 pandemic, increased awareness, less stigma around cannabis use, and the rise of a multibillion-dollar industry around medical marijuana for veterans.

Some veterans and advocates have argued that the rise of medical cannabis has helped reduce the use of opioids and other narcotics.

While he couldn’t say if that was true, Whitehead reported a drop in alcohol consumption among his organization’s clients.

However, he and others also pointed to the many questions that remain about whether medical marijuana really helps veterans, and if so, how and why.

“We’re sure there’s absolutely some benefit because veterans tell us, and they tell us often,” 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 has been trying to answer some of those questions at McMaster. What he has discovered so far is a dearth of real data on the impacts of medical marijuana, and what is available shows little to no impact on most people with chronic pain or sleep problems.

Even the studies that have been done have been extremely limited, Busse added, with little information on the impact on those suffering from PTSD or even the long-term impacts of cannabis use.

The lack of concrete information comes despite the fact that the federal government has promised repeatedly over the years to fund research on the subject. Busse blamed regulations and bureaucracy at Health Canada for preventing large-scale clinical trials.

“It was only (this week) that we finally got approval to run our first trial, despite getting funding for it more than two years ago,” he said. “And I know a lot of companies have just given up doing clinical trials in Canada.”

Veterans Affairs did not speak publicly about any anticipated changes to its reimbursement rules, but officials told MacAulay in June that since it is “an evolving treatment area, Canada Veterans Affairs regularly reviews the latest available evidence and adjust our policy as needed.”

While Thorne and Whitehead have heard veterans testify about the benefits of medical marijuana, and the Veterans Transition Network does not support limiting access, there is concern that some former service members use the drug to avoid their trauma. psychological instead of facing it.

“We’d love to see the amount of spending go up every year for counseling programs, whether it’s ours or any other,” Thorne said. “We would love to see that kind of similar acceptance.”

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