‘No more zombie veterans’: push to subsidise life-changing medical cannabis
The No More Zombie Veterans campaign is being led by Iraq veteran Derek Pyrah (right). Currently, veterans are either required to build up the funds for medicinal cannabis scripts – with costs of more than $2000 per month – or turn to the black market and face possible criminal conviction and prison.
The alternative is settling for the psychotropic medication supported by the DVA, which Mr Pyrah says “have been scientifically proven to be harmful to human health, are ineffective and can lead to suicidal ideation”.
He is aiming for 25,000 signatures to send a message to Mr Keogh and the DVA. The petition is currently sitting at about 17,500 signatures.
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The Wollongong-based Mr Pyrah has been sending evidence-rich letters to the DVA since 2019.
He said current treatment options were turning veterans into zombies, ruining family relationships and requiring years of taxpayer-funded, ongoing medical attention.
Veterans wanted support for medicinal cannabis because they felt they were overmedicated on current psychotropics, Mr Pyrah said.
His own experience began in late 2003, when he returned from Iraq.
“Everyone noticed I was different when I came back,” Mr Pyrah said.
“Wife, family, they were all like, ‘Who is this?’
“It’s just how it goes, you don’t realise. The high-stress environment for a long period of time with things happening now and again that sort of play with your head.
“Internationally, research and scientists are finding out if you overmedicate veterans with PTSD on the psychotropic medication, it does lead to suicidal ideation, it makes them zombies.
“Veterans all around the world talk about this, being zombies, and it leads to family and relationship breakups.”
But the DVA “keeps pumping” veterans “full of these medications that don’t work”, Mr Pyrah said, leading to social and economic costs down the track.
The air force veteran was in and out of hospital for nine years, estimating his ineffective treatment to have cost at least $1m in taxpayer money.
Wives, husbands and children of PTSD-affected veterans often require “decades” of counselling, Mr Pyrah added.
“If you get family and relationship breakups, you’ve got traumatised kids,” he said.
“If you’ve got an angry parent who’s a veteran with PTSD and they’re on the current medications, they’re still angry, they’re just a medicated zombie.
“That affects the kids. That affects the wife, the husband.
“That’s money the government has to put out in counselling for decades for that — and that happens.”
WHAT THE MEDICAL EXPERTS SAY
Cannabis prescriber Dr James Stewart said a series of antipsychotic medications approved and subsidised by the DVA could give veterans the “zombie” feeling when they were using a mix of drugs to combat pain, mental-health and sleep issues.
“The (drugs) they use for mental health, that’s your standard antidepressants, but a lot of these guys have PTSD so they then go onto your antipsychotic medications, which are pretty serious,” Dr Stewart said.
“They change the way a person thinks, the mood they’re in and come with side effects like weight gain, loss of libido, all these things.
“The other one is your sleeping pills. They’re just a relaxant, but they also become addictive and can have a carry-over effect the next day.
“On their own, they can still be pretty bad, but a lot of these guys are on a combination of all three of those because they come back, they’ve got pain, mental-health issues and they’re not sleeping well.
“They’re just zombies, they’re not themselves and they can’t think.”
Veterans reported significant health improvements when they were introduced to medicinal cannabis as an alternative, Dr Stewart added, with many feeling as though they had been freed from the “zombie”.
“The amount of patients I’ve been able to step off opioids and antipsychotics and they’re using cannabis, everyone reports a cloud has lifted,” he said.
“A switch has been switched back on, everything’s bright again. They’re not just this zombie, dazed, glazed, walking around.”
CALLS FOR CHANGE FALLING ON DEAF EARS
The DVA continues to ignore calls to review its policies, medical professionals and veterans say.
Dr Stewart even offered to write the department a new policy free of charge, arguing it was “unreasonable and outdated”.
Fellow prescriber Jim Connell also joined the chorus of calls for change in a bid to support veterans who desperately need it.
But veterans continued to suffer while the DVA declined the opportunity to review its drug approval process, Dr Stewart said.
“Everyday that this goes waiting, more veterans suffer and take their life, which is so frustrating,” he said.
“I don’t know why nothing is being done.”
Mr Pyrah hopes new veteran affairs Minister Matt Keough will take notice.
“I’m writing more letters at the moment to ministers about this campaign and about this change needed,” he said.
“The reply I’ve had back from the DVA with all my letters over the last couple of years has pretty much been the same sentence: there’s not enough scientific evidence to support medicinal cannabis for PTSD.”
WHAT THE VETERANS MINISTER SAYS
Mr Keogh insists the DVA is monitoring research in the medicinal cannabis space but says he is advised there is still insufficient evidence to approve the drug for PTSD.
“Ensuring our veterans have access to the most appropriate available treatments for mental and physical conditions is always important,” he told NCA NewsWire.
“(But) I am advised that there is currently insufficient formal evidence to support medicinal cannabis as an effective treatment for mental health conditions, including PTSD.”
He said the DVA was “actively monitoring research” despite multiple doctors and veterans claiming the department continued to ignore the evidence they presented.
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“I’m aware clinical trials are beginning to see positive anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of (cannabis) treatments for mental health conditions,” Mr Keogh said.
“I look forward to further advice following these trials.”