Healing a Broken System: Veterans and the War on Drugs
Drug Policy Alliance
Hundreds of thousands of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI),and other illnesses and injuries that often contribute to substance abuse and addiction, fatal overdose, homelessness and suicide.
The current generation of veterans joins the large population of Vietnam-era veterans who have struggled with the same problems for decades. Left untreated, these underlying medical conditions often contribute to violations of the law, especially nonviolent drug offenses. Veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan run a high risk of becoming casualties of America’s longest and most costly war: the war on drugs. Effective treatments to treat drug misuse and addiction, as well as PTSD and other service-related conditions, meanwhile, are often underutilized or prohibited as a result of entrenched drug war policies codified at the local, state and federal levels.
This policy brief highlights some less-discussed but deeply troubling issues affecting veterans that are caused or exacerbated by the drug war – and proposes proven, commonsense and cost-effective solutions to improve the health, reduce the likelihood of accidental death, and preserve the freedom of those who have served in our armed forces.
Summary of Recommendations
- The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Department of Defense (DoD) must adopt overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans and service members who misuse alcohol and other drugs, or who take prescription medications, especially opioid analgesics.
- Veteran treatment programs must greatly expand access to medication-assisted therapies like methadone and buprenorphine, which are the most effective means of treating opioid dependence.
- State and federal governments must modify sentencing statutes and improve court-ordered drug diversion programs to better treat – rather than criminalize and incarcerate – veterans who commit drug law violations. State and federal governments should expand community-based treatment options and explore pre-arrest diversion programs to help veterans before they enter the justice system.
- States and the federal government must expand, not obstruct, research and implementation of innovative treatments for PTSD and other psychological and physical wounds of war, including treatment modalities involving Schedule I substances such as MDMA and marijuana.
Substance Abuse and Mental Illness
- Among U.S. Veterans Two and a half million men and women have served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
- Approximately 50 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated by the VA report symptoms of a mental illness.
- Approximately 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by the VA report symptoms of PTSD.
- Estimates vary, but one study found that more than 11 percent of current conflict veterans have been diagnosed with a substance abuse condition.
- According to the VA, 19 percent of current conflict veterans who have received VA care have been diagnosed with substance abuse or dependence.
- Military personnel and combat veterans have higher rates of problematic substance use than their age peers in the general population.
- Seventy-five percent of Vietnam combat veterans with PTSD met criteria for substance abuse or dependence in a national study.
- Roughly one-third of veterans who seek treatment for substance misuse also meet criteria of PTSD.
- Veterans do not qualify for substance abuse disability benefits unless they also have PTSD.
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