VANCOUVER - The federal government is drastically cutting the amount of medical cannabis for which veterans will be reimbursed after years of skyrocketing costs and concerns about overuse.
The announcement prompted panic and anger from some veterans who say the new limit of three grams a day will put former soldiers at greater risk of opioid addiction and suicide.
Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said Tuesday he was shocked to learn that the previous Conservative government began reimbursing veterans for medical cannabis without a policy.
"Frankly, how we're here nine years later ... was a shocking abrogation by the former government, and a series of successive ministers who just played the role of the ostrich and buried their heads in the sand," he said.
The department said 2,000 of the 3,071 veterans currently being reimbursed for medical cannabis are using four grams a day or more. Nine hundred of those are using the current maximum limit of 10 grams or more.
It estimates that it will spend $75 million on reimbursement for cannabis this year.
Hehr said the department consulted with medical experts and veterans before reaching the new limit of three grams a day, which is consistent with Health Canada guidelines.
The new limit is for dried cannabis or the equivalent of oil and fresh marijuana. Veterans whose health practitioner authorizes more than three grams a day can apply for an exception to the policy, which will come into effect May 21.
The department said an investigation earlier this year concluded there was no evidence that veterans were reselling cannabis.
Riley McGee of Marijuana for Trauma, a cross-country network of clinics for veterans, said the policy would drive veterans to more dangerous and addictive prescription drugs, and put them at greater risk of mental health problems and suicide.
McGee said he takes 10 grams of cannabis a day for the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed while serving in Afghanistan. Many veterans using this amount are suffering chronic pain and may take CBD oil, which has no psychoactive effect.
"The cost of war doesn't end when our soldiers come home. If they're going to complain about the cost of supporting our soldiers after the fact, they need to make that consideration before they send our men and women to war," he said.
Retired corporal Clayton Goodwin, who represents a group called Veterans for the Use of Medical Marijuana, said more veterans are using cannabis because it is working for them.
"Some veterans are off of 15 pills a day. They have better quality of life," he said. "You're affecting that directly."
Craig Forsberg, who served in Canada's military for 17 years, said before he began using 10 grams of cannabis a day for his chronic pain, he was on a cocktail of antidepressants and pain medications that left him feeling too dazed to work or drive.
"A lot of people are terrified that they're going to wind up going back on the pharmacy medications that ultimately made them worse," he said.
Hehr announced the new policy at a veterans' health forum in Vancouver. He said scientific research on the medical effects of cannabis was inconclusive, and the department would join the Canadian Armed Forces in launching its own study of the topic.
Israel and the Netherlands have also done research on marijuana for medical purposes. Israel's average use of cannabis is 1.5 grams per day, while in the Netherlands it is 0.68 grams.
The policy also fixes the rate of reimbursement to a maximum of $8.50 per gram.
An official with Veterans Affairs said after media reports alleged licenced producers were charging veterans more for cannabis, the department spoke with all major suppliers and decided to establish a maximum cost per gram.
Neil Closner, CEO of MedReleaf, said his company removed one cheaper strain of marijuana from the website that veterans see when they log in with their accounts. It did so because its data shows the strain either does not help or aggravates PTSD, but Health Canada does not allow it to describe which products work for different symptoms, he said.
"If I was to put that product and make it available to them, which I might do now to avoid this optical problem, it's going to be at the veterans' expense. That's what hurts me."
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