Military veterans who smoke, eat or vape as much as 10 grams a day of medical marijuana for chronic pain or PTSD are facing a dramatic cut in reimbursement within days for a treatment many say is the only one that works.
Nearly 4,500 veterans are currently reimbursed by Veterans Affairs for up to 10 grams a day of medical marijuana, but on Monday, that will be capped at three grams a day.
The move affects 2,578 veterans. Their coverage will be cut by as much as two-thirds.
Veterans Affairs spent $63.7 million in 2016-17 for medical marijuana — triple the amount spent the previous year.
In a statement, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said "this is not about dollars and cents."
He said the department is following the recommendation of the College of Family Physicians of Canada that establishes three grams as the upper limit for medical cannabis while research continues to emerge.
The move has angered Fabian Henry, an Afghanistan veteran and the founder of Marijuana for Trauma — an Oromocto, N.B., company with 15 locations to help veterans access medical marijuana.
'Veterans are sitting at home in anxiety'
Henry, who was medically released from the army in 2012, said he smokes 10 grams of marijuana a day.
"A couple thousand veterans are sitting at home in anxiety right now wondering how they're going to survive on 70 per cent less medication," Henry, 37, said from a hotel room in Ottawa.
The New Waterford, N.S., native just finished a five-month walk to Ottawa from New Brunswick. He plans to stage a peaceful demonstration Thursday on Parliament Hill to protest the cut to reimbursements.
The reduction means veterans who use medical marijuana will have to pay out of pocket for their full dosage or medicate with less weed.
Henry said cannabis is the only thing that works to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder and tame suicidal and violent thoughts. Anti-psychotics, benzodiazepenes and anti-depressants have failed, he said.
When Hehr announced the cutback in November, an internal department review showed a skyrocketing number of prescriptions and the lack of a policy on reimbursement.
Hehr said the new policy will be reviewed and adjusted as more scientific evidence becomes available.
"There is sufficient anecdotal evidence from veterans that it works, which is why we continue to be the only jurisdiction in North America that reimburses," said Hehr.
Not too much pot
Henry said medical marijuana has greatly improved his quality of life so that he's able to work.
He said the marijuana doesn't make him stoned because of the strains he uses and the tolerance he's built up over the last six years.
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have almost the same number of veterans receiving compensation for medical marijuana. More than 1,500 of them live in the two Maritime provinces — that's 35 per cent of all claimants across the country.
Veterans who have authorization from a pain management specialist or a psychiatrist for more than three grams a day can continue to receive higher compensation. So far, 46 veterans, more than half the applicants, have that approval.
But Fabian said the wait to see a specialist can take months — his own appointment is in the fall — and that lag will leave veterans in the lurch.
In response to complaints, Hehr said his department is working with veterans who are having difficulties getting the paperwork together.
The department has simplified the authorization process for veterans who have both chronic pain and a psychiatric condition. Now approval from either a pain management or a psychiatrist will suffice.
'This should be alarming'
Henry is unsatisfied. He is urging the minister to hold off on the reimbursement cutback until the department finishes its own research project on the effects of marijuana on veterans.
He said the potential consequence of having veterans run out of medication "should be alarming" to the department.
"The one medication that was working is going to be drastically reduced and potentially flare up people's PTSD," said Henry.
"I don't really know what's going to happen. I just know it ain't going to be good."
Cannabis 'cannot be the whole treatment'
Michel Doiron, the department's assistant deputy minister, said one of the most effective ways of helping people in mental health distress is "engagement and support early and often."
He said cannabis may play a role in treatment "but it cannot be the whole treatment regime."
Doiron said the department provides support to access thousands of mental health practitioners across the country, operational service injury clinics and military family resource centres.