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Veterans with PTSD to take Ottawa to court over cuts to medical marijuana funding

Ron Forrest, a former warrant officer, says medical cannabis enables him to treat both his chronic pain and PTSD and feel “normal.”

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

New Brunswick veterans with PTSD are preparing to take the federal government to court in hopes of winning a declaration that Veteran’s Affairs Canada violated their rights when it reduced the amount of medicinal marijuana it would cover.

Members of the group use the drug to treat their service-related injuries. In an unusual move, instead of seeking payments for damages, the veterans plan to ask a federal court to rule that VAC violated its obligation to vets last May, when it reduced the daily allowance of medical cannabis by 70 per cent, from 10 grams to three.

David Lutz, the Saint John-based lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs, said they want to be compensated for enough cannabis to avoid resorting to prescription drugs to control symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions. The lawsuit, which has yet to be filed, could also seek a declaration that VAC must address the rights violation by restoring funding to its previous level.

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“We are asking for a declaration by the court that reducing from 10 grams to three grams is a violation of the government’s obligation to the veterans,” Mr. Lutz said. “We need to make a new law here.”

When the cuts were instituted last May, more than 2,500 veterans across the country had authorization to use more than three grams of medicinal marijuana a day to treat symptoms of PTSD, chronic pain and more, even though scientific evidence on its use as a treatment is scant.

The cuts forced all of those veterans onto lower doses and many former soldiers told The Globe and Mail they tried to take their own lives to avoid relapsing with uncontrollable symptoms. Some followed through, including one veteran who told his family he could not survive on the reduced dose and killed himself after just one week.

One year later, funding has been restored for nearly half of the veterans whose coverage was cut to three grams, in many cases up to 10 grams a day. Those who have signed onto the effort to launch a class-action lawsuit – which is being funded by Veterans for Healing, an advocacy and support organization in Oromocto, N.B. – want to ensure nothing similar happens to vets in the future.

“It’s not about money, it’s about doing what’s right,” said Jamie Keating, a Saint John-based veteran who will be the named plaintiff. It is also backed by well-known veteran and cannabis advocate Fabian Henry. “You can’t just cut vets off cold turkey when something works,” Mr. Keating said, adding: “If it was opiates, they wouldn’t be able to just stop.”

Costs of VAC’s medical marijuana had skyrocketed to more than $60-million – making it the most costly item in the department’s drug-benefit program – and the lack of science to support using cannabis as a treatment factored prominently in the decision to scale back.

Cut off: How Veterans Affairs’ clawback on medical marijuana threw a community off-kilter

Seamus O’Regan, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, said the decision was not about cost.

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“We still have a heck of a lot of research to do when it comes to cannabis use and how it affects PTSD and other mental-health conditions,” Mr. O’Regan said on Monday in Ottawa, where he announced the creation of a centre of excellence on veterans’ mental health at the Royal, a leading mental-health hospital.

Mr. O’Regan did not respond directly when asked if the government should apologize to the veterans who suffered after the cutbacks only to have their coverage bumped up again months later.

Zul Merali, chief executive officer of the Royal, said there is anecdotal evidence of marijuana’s efficacy with PTSD but more hard research is needed.

In New Brunswick, Mr. Lutz said he is building a cache of anecdotal evidence to address this before he files the case. His office is interviewing up to 100 veterans.

“The theme here is plants, not pills,” Mr. Lutz said, adding that none of those who have signed onto the suit could cope on three grams of cannabis a day without resorting to additional drugs. “And they don’t want to do that,” Mr. Lutz said. “Medical marijuana has replaced every pill that these people were on before. I expect to be able to demonstrate that,” he said.

New data recently released to The Globe show that as veterans’ medical cannabis use ballooned, prescriptions for opioids and tranquilizers declined significantly.

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Ron Forrest, a former warrant officer with PTSD living in Geary, N.B., said going from pills to cannabis was “a night and day thing. When you’re on pills, it takes the pain away, but I can’t go anywhere because people think I’m impaired.”

Medical cannabis enables him to treat both his chronic pain and PTSD and feel “normal.”

Mr. Forrest is part of the class-action effort. “There was no reason for VAC to cut us back that drastically,” he said, adding: “… We had people kill themselves.”

Ryan Turcotte is a Canadian veteran suffering from PTSD. His medication shifted from prescription pills to 10 grams of marijuana per day; a change he says gave him his life back. As the medical marijuana program for veterans quickly took hold nationally, countermeasures were introduced to cut ballooning costs. For Turcotte, what's still missing is a proper support system. The Globe and Mail
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