The federal government’s effort to rein in the cost of reimbursing veterans for their medical marijuana appears to have failed as new figures show Ottawa shelled out a record $75 million in the last fiscal year.
And that’s only the beginning: the Veterans Affairs Canada figures show the government is on track to spend nearly $100 million this year as more and more former service members ask the government to pay for their cannabis.
The growing use of medical marijuana by veterans — and the growing cost to taxpayers — comes despite an overhaul of the way the government reimburses ex-military personnel for pot in November 2016. It was then that the Liberal government reduced the amount of marijuana it would cover from 10 grams per day to three. It also capped the amount it would pay at $8.50 per gram.
The government cited rising costs and a lack of scientific evidence about the drug’s medical benefits as the primary reasons for the new restrictions, which were met with anger and concern in the veterans’ community.
Veterans Affairs has paid for medical marijuana for veterans since 2008, following a court decision requiring reasonable access to the drug when authorized by a health-care practitioner. But the number of clients — and the costs — started to explode in 2014 when regulatory changes at Health Canada and a new Veterans Affairs policy established the limit of 10 grams per day.
The government did see its costs decline to $50 million in 2017-18 from $63 million the previous year after the Liberals implemented their restrictions, but those savings were shortlived. The cost jumped to $75 million last year.
The growth can be traced to a more than doubling in the number of veterans asking the government to cover the drug, with 10,000 reimbursed in 2018-19 as compared to 4,500 in 2016-17.
Ten thousand veterans were reimbursed during the first four months of this year alone — 1,700 of whom have special medical exemptions that let them claim more than three grams per day.
Yet at the same time, the scientific evidence about the benefits of cannabis remains largely incomplete, says Jason Busse of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medical Cannabis Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
“We’re in a bit of a funny situation where cannabis has emerged on the market as a therapeutic agent not so much because we have rigorous evidence to fully understand the benefits and risks, but more through a series of legal challenges,” he said.
What isn’t funny, at least not to Busse, is use by veterans and non-veterans alike has continued to increase despite this lack of information as people search for ways to ease chronic pain, post-traumatic stress and other problems.
The federal government has stepped up funding to research medical marijuana in recent years. Some of the money has been directed toward McMaster, which is also home to a new chronic-pain research centre supported by Veterans Affairs. But the science will take time.
“There is some ongoing work that will hopefully be published in the next few years that will give greater insight,” said Busse. “Until we have better evidence, it’s very difficult to say if use of cannabis is helping, harming or simply ineffective.”