Campaigners are hoping the launch of a royal commission into suicides among serving defence force members and veterans could be the springboard for greater acceptance of medicinal cannabis as a treatment for PTSD.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday bowed to mounting pressure to launch the inquiry that will begin by July at the latest and take up to two years to complete.

While the terms of reference have not been confirmed, it is hoped the royal commission will provide a forum to highlight what campaigners regard as the inadequacies of PTSD treatment.

Morrison said he hoped the commission would be a “healing process”.

“The royal commission will have a mandate to examine the systemic issues and any common themes and past deaths by suicide of Australian Defence Force members and veterans,” he said.

“[It will examine] the experience of members and veterans who may continue to be at risk of suicide. And it will examine all aspects of service in the Australian Defence Force and the experience of those transitioning from active service.”

Given the sensitive and personal nature of the issues, some sessions may be held in private, Morrison said, adding that the commission will “not be about making findings of civil or criminal wrongdoing”.

The creation of a royal commission, a course of action initially resisted by Morrison, is a timely boost for veterans, families and campaigners, albeit long overdue.

Suicides among members of Australia’s defence forces have long been of grave concern, with official data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) showing 465 serving and former-ADF personnel took their own lives between 2001 and 2018. A further 13 have died this year.

Julie-Ann Finney, whose son David suffered from PTSD after a career in the Royal Australian Navy and took his own life in 2017, welcomed the launch of the royal commission.

Julie-Ann Finney: change.org petition calling for a royal commission drew more than 400,000 signatures

“Today is a long time coming for veterans and their families,” said Finney, whose change.org petition calling for a royal commission attracted more than 400,000 signatures. “Finally, the voices of veterans will be heard. Finally, families can stand up and share their stories.”

While clearly a complex and sensitive subject, and one the royal commission will explore in depth, the medical treatment of PTSD and other conditions suffered by serving and ex-military personnel is likely to be among the issues closely examined.

Advocacy groups have long sought better access to medicinal cannabis, particularly for veterans suffering from PTSD, many of whom are prescribed a cocktail of opioids and antipsychotic drugs.  

The struggle to access medicinal cannabis has been illustrated by the case of Derek Pyrah, a veteran of the Iraq War whose quality of life dramatically improved after turning to cannabis following nine years of hospital admissions as he battled mental illness.

Derek Pyrah: still fighting for subsidised cannabis

Yet two applications to subsidise his cannabis – which is temporarily being supplied free of charge by Entoura – have been rejected by the Department of Veteran Affairs despite backing from his GP and psychiatrist.

In its latest refusal to help, the DVA reiterated its view that evidence demonstrating efficacy of medicinal cannabis for PTSD was lacking.

The crusade to help veterans is also being taken up by Australian Medicinal Cannabis Association (AMCA) chair Lucy Haslam who last week convened a meeting of support groups, doctors, veterans and legal experts.

Responding to news of the royal commission, Haslam told Cannabiz: “AMCA welcomes the announcement of a royal commission into veteran suicides and hopes that veteran access to medicinal cannabis will be part of the solution sought by everyone. It also urges better support for veterans who are in need of medicinal cannabis and who need DVA funded access as a matter of urgency.”

Writing in Cannabiz last week, Haslam insisted the DVA should fund a large-scale cannabis trial for veterans with PTSD.

“This would serve many purposes,” she wrote. “It would get veterans off illicit cannabis, away from the risk of prosecution and under the care of a doctor. It would build the evidence that the DVA is demanding. It would show veterans they are valued and improve their mental health, where they currently report feeling abandoned, disrespected and at risk. It would make the Government appear to care, rather than lacking intellect and compassion.

“Most importantly, it saves the valued and deserving lives of this country’s heroes.”