Veterans have become a vocal, visible source of advocacy for medical marijuana research and legalization. The glaring needs have reached crisis proportions with soaring rates of suicide, opioid abuse, and untreated mental health issues.
Yet the barriers to providing medical marijuana to active-duty members of the military, veterans, and first responders are daunting. Veterans are able to discuss using cannabis with their doctors, but clinicians with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are not able to discuss cannabis use or write a recommendation for medical marijuana in accordance with state law. Veterans also fear repercussions as severe as losing VA benefits entirely.
The VA has taken a stance that it is “required to follow all federal laws, including those regarding marijuana. As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I [substance], VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist veterans to obtain it.”
Cannabis is categorized as a Schedule I drug within the Federal Controlled Substances Act, which defines it as a substance with no currently accepted medical use, a high potential for abuse, as dangerous as heroin, and more dangerous than opium, cocaine, and methamphetamine. That categorization puts VA doctors — and their patients — firmly between a rock and a hard place.
But it’s the veterans who are suffering.
“One of the great tragedies of our time is the failure to adequately address the needs of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said in Stars and Stripes. Founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Blumenauer added that for some veterans, marijuana and cannabis derivatives are lifesavers that keep them from using addictive pain medications such as opioids.
Recently, three bipartisan bills were introduced that would protect veterans who use cannabis from losing their benefits. The bills also would allow VA doctors to not only discuss cannabis as a treatment option, but also offer the necessary recommendations to obtain medical marijuana.
The physical and mental health of those active in the military, veterans, and first responders is of rising concern. Common health issues faced by those who serve include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, and anxiety. Suicide rates are also twice that of the civilian population. Each day, about 22 veterans take their own lives.
In Massachusetts, researchers have mounted a national survey that seeks to help educate elected officials, government department heads, and the public about the health benefits of cannabis use by those who served in the military.
In March 2019, a coalition of academic, medical and veterans’ groups launched the Veterans Health and Medical Cannabis Research Study to understand veterans health statuses, treatments, medications, cannabis use, access to insurance, and quality of life.
The researchers are seeking to expand their participant pool nationwide to collect enough data to convince officials that cannabis has medicinal value.
Preliminary data from the anonymous study already has shown that veterans are reducing the need for over-the-counter prescriptions for pain and stomach ailments, as well as reducing or eliminating the use of opioids for chronic pain.
To help plead the cause of research on cannabis, a range of veterans groups have testified on Capitol Hill about their urgent need for cannabis reform that would allow federal agencies to embrace research on medical marijuana.
Veterans groups that support medicinal cannabis have seen many congressional bills and resolutions come and go without ever solving their pressing medical issues. High rates of traumatic brain injury, PTSD, chronic pain, and other ailments add to veterans’ alarming suicide rates.
“Time and again, we’ve seen very similar efforts, and time and again, they’ve been canceled or Congress decides not to vote on them or allow them to get to the floor for debate,” said Robert Kowalski, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served for five years as a security forces member and completed two combat tours in Iraq.
Legislators nationwide have repeatedly introduced bills to help veterans access cannabis as an effective alternative treatment for physical and psychological wounds.
Aaron Augustus, founder of the California-based nonprofit collective Veterans Cannabis Group, states its mission is to “advocate and support the use of medicinal cannabis to treat the symptoms of combat-related PTSD for U.S. military veterans.”
In a recent interview, Augustus said the Veterans Cannabis Group aims to “ultimately make it so veterans have the ability to access cannabis through the VA. The VA is where most veterans get their medication from, so they really should be able to get their doctors’ recommendation and medical cannabis through the VA.”
As awareness grows about the usefulness and need for medical marijuana research, veterans’ groups nationwide find that they now have other advocacy groups, individuals, and businesses adding to their ranks.
New Outlets for Advocacy
With the debut of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in August, visitors can learn for themselves how policies shaped and reshaped marijuana for decades. Weedmaps is at the forefront of the effort to inform policymakers, reveal truths surrounding cannabis, and with the Weedmaps Museum of Weed, bring to life the tortuous history of cannabis around the world. Veterans and their issues are highlighted within the museum.
In appreciation of service members and first responders, and in solidarity with achieving access for all, Weedmaps is offering military members, veterans, and first responders discounted ticket prices to the Weedmaps Museum of Weed. For more information visit TheMuseumOfWeed.com.
For military members, veterans, and first responders, Weedmaps aims to make cannabis legal, safe, and accessible. Opening Aug. 3, 2019, in Los Angeles, the Weedmaps Museum of Weed tells the story of the advocates who’ve kept the legalization movement alive in order to offer a dose of compassion to those in need. Discounted tickets for military and first responders are on sale now. (Photo by Israel Palacio on Unsplash)
This content is sponsored by Weedmaps.