Michael Krawitz was drawn to advocacy to take on "pain contracts" — sets of conditions that patients must meet in order to continue getting their medicinal prescriptions. Krawitz says they're often unclear and don't serve patients' best interests, which has been especially obvious when dealing with military veterans.
"Several vets had come to me, [and said] that they were denied their pain treatment because they were using medical marijuana," says the executive director of Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access, remembering some time he spent in California. "And it wound up being one of the more extreme cases, because this doctor out there was not only cutting them off their pain treatment, but he was making them go to drug rehab classes, before he'd let them have their pain treatment back."
Attempting to clarify the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' views on MMJ use, Krawitz wrote to the department earlier this year. On July 6, he received a response from undersecretary Robert Petzel, who wrote, "If a veteran obtains and uses medical marijuana in a manner consistent with state law, testing positive for marijuana would not preclude the veteran from receiving opioids for pain management."
Last week, the VA made that sentiment official policy; Krawitz says he was elated.
"It's such a big deal — we're still trying to assess what it means," he says. "It's the first of its kind. I mean, the VA has never made any such statements nationally on medical marijuana, leaving a real fuzzy area for doctors to try to wander around in. And that's really had a chilling effect on veterans care."
The director, a veteran himself, says the department's previous policy encouraged a culture of fear, and made some veterans distrust their doctors. It also encouraged vets to seek outside treatment, especially for MMJ recommendations.
Springs resident Bret Underal has been there.
The 43-year-old U.S. Army veteran is 80 percent disabled, suffering from a degenerative disease in his pelvic column and girdle, a pinched nerve that has previously hospitalized him, and little to no sensation in his extremities, among other maladies.
"With injuries like that, when you're talking about losing benefits, it's not just a small thing, because I have to live with all these the rest of my life," Underal says. "I can tell when the weather's changing, and it's not a comfortable thing."
Underal says he sought an outside recommendation, switching to medical marijuana after years of downing Celebrex, OxyContin and 1,600 milligrams of Motrin ibuprofen per day.
"I know of two veterans, particularly, who were told by VA within the last four years, that if they were found 'hot' using marijuana, then all of their benefits would be rescinded, and their pain management would be cut off. Even though the substances they were using were tearing up their body."
Sensible Colorado executive director Brian Vicente, whose organization has pushed a similar issue — the adding of post-traumatic stress disorder to the state's MMJ qualification list — says he's "absolutely thrilled" with the new stance.
"This is certainly an issue in Colorado, and certainly an issue in Colorado Springs," he says. "And I think it's worth noting that now we have at least one federal agency that's taking a more common-sense view on medical marijuana."