Medical marijuana groups say increase in veterans' pot claims no shock

Two of the leading Canadian companies that help veterans file reimbursement claims for medicinal marijuana say the spike in payments from the federal government over the past couple of years comes as no surprise.

Trauma Healing Centers and Marijuana for Trauma were responding to Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr launching an internal program review.

CBC News reported Monday that Hehr wants answers following a nearly 12-fold increase in the number of veterans turning to the government to pay for their medically prescribed marijuana since 2013-2014.

Hehr said he was shocked to find there was "no policy developed by the former government around the use of medical marijuana."

"What we have to look at is best practices around the world; what other militaries are doing and veterans' communities," he said. "At the end of the day, we have to look at this with science, reason and common sense."

In 2013-14, Veterans Affairs paid out $409,000 for medical marijuana prescriptions, according to figures provided by Veterans Affairs.

The next fiscal year, it jumped to $5.2 million. And within the first nine months of the current year, it shot up to $12.1 million.

The number of veterans being reimbursed has risen to 1,320 from 112 during that two-year period.

Trev Bungay, vice-president of Trauma Healing Centers, says the numbers don't shock him.

"Now that people are finally coming out and admitting that they're sick and they need help, whether it's post-traumatic stress [PTSD] or chronic pain, or any other illness that can be helped with medicinal marijuana, then that's where it's coming from," said Bungay.

"Our position on it is we kind of expected that this [review] was going to happen in time."

The federal government sets a limit of how much pot it will pay for: 10 grams a day. Bungay says that equates to about $2,000 per month.

Rise will continue

Trauma Healing Centers connects veterans with doctors who will prescribe marijuana, and helps them claim the costs through Veterans Affairs Canada.

The company is based out of Dartmouth, N.S., but has its roots in Oromocto, N.B., home to 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown, formerly and commonly known as CFB Gagetown.

A similar company, Marijuana for Trauma, is also based in Oromocto. Both have at least five offices across Canada, and are expanding.

Reached via text message on Monday, Marijuana for Trauma president Fabian Henry said he has been asking Veterans Affairs Canada to take a look at the program for two years.

"This is just the beginning of the spike and it's going to get a lot higher," said Henry.

Bungay says both groups have played a major part in the growing number of claims.

"I mean obviously we give people with the illnesses an opportunity and a place to come to get that prescription, so we're definitely the big players in that."

In 2014-15, 42 per cent of all medicinal marijuana payments from Veterans Affairs Canada were to veterans in New Brunswick.

Veterans Affairs Canada isn't involved in prescribing marijuana. Veterans consult their doctor and Blue Cross processes the claims.

However, giving pot to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder directly contradicts the military's stance on the issue. In a statement, the Canadian Forces said there's not enough proof to authorize marijuana as a treatment for PTSD and that some evidence suggests it could be harmful.

Marijuana has not been approved as a drug or medicine by Health Canada.

Hehr said he hopes the internal review will be completed within the next couple of months.

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