Veterans advocate says let doctors decide on medical marijuana

Veterans Affairs is meeting with medical marijuana users as it tries to come up with a pot policy. One advocate says the government should avoid putting limits on the use and amount doctors can prescribe.

Veterans Affairs and Canadian military differ over the use of prescription pot

Canadian Veterans Advocacy president Mike Blais is one of the 'beneficiaries' of prescription medical marijuana that the government plans to consult as it tries to develop a policy. He says the government shouldn't place limits on the amount used by vets. (The Canadian Press)

As the federal government tries to come up with a pot policy for military veterans, one medical marijuana user has some advice: don't limit how much prescription pot a veteran can eat, smoke or drink.

"I think there should be no cap and that every case should be judged on individual merit and that the doctor's prescription is paramount," said Mike Blais, president and founder of Canadian Veterans Advocacy.

Veterans Affairs currently covers the cost of up to 10 grams of medical marijuana per day for veterans. But in March, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr said he was "shocked" to find his department lacked an "informed policy" on the use of prescription marijuana, even as number of claims for medical marijuana by veterans grew more than tenfold over the last two years.

After hearing about the rise, Hehr asked for what he called an "internal review" of the policy. Officials have already spoken with doctors and will also consult medical marijuana providers and "beneficiaries," including Blais. 

Blais applauds the government for consulting on the issue and said he's happy with the way things are proceeding. Still, he insists the question of quantity should be resolved between veterans and their doctors.

"I think it's grotesquely unfair for some bureaucrat in Prince Edward Island going through a cost analyst and checking over the money score and saying 'Oh geez, we're spending too much money here. We've got to cut them off.' 

"No, no, no. These are real people. These people have gone to their doctors, their psychiatrists, their pain specialists, whoever has written out that prescription."

The minister's office said consultation is ongoing.

"Regarding veterans' concerns about access, that is why we are including them in the conversation, so that we can get the fullest picture possible of how any policy we develop will impact veterans," said Sarah McMaster, spokeswoman for Hehr.

Back in March, Hehr said he hoped the review would take a couple of months. His office didn't offer an updated timeline but said the conversations "will not result in an immediate report but will inform how the government moves forward on this file."

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr in March said he asked for an internal review of the department's policy on medical marijuana. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

'Significant policy divergence'

Veterans Affairs has another issue to consider too: the Canadian Forces takes a very different stand on medical marijuana.

In a 2014 email obtained by CBC News under access to information laws, H.C. MacKay, who was then the deputy surgeon general of the Canadian Forces, wrote, "With respect to marijuana use for medical purposes, we have identified what appears to be a very significant policy divergence between VAC [Veterans Affairs Canada] and CAF [Canadian Armed Forces]."

MacKay wrote that while Veterans Affairs is funding the use of medical marijuana, the military's health service does not recognize it for medical use. Mackay, now a brigadier-general, noted "this may well capture media attention" and has the potential to confuse patients.

Asked about the current policy, a spokesperson for the Canadian Forces said there is no official directive on medical marijuana yet, but one is in the process of being approved.

Regarding the specific question of using medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, the Canadian Forces said there is not enough evidence to authorize its use and that, in fact, some evidence suggests it could be harmful.

While both Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Forces work on their medical marijuana policies, the federal government has announced it will introduce legislation to legalize and regulate the sale of recreational pot in the spring of 2017.