• February 27, 2021

GOP Fight Over Whether Veterans Should Get Marijuana, Not Just Opioids

 GOP Fight Over Whether Veterans Should Get Marijuana, Not Just Opioids

Photo by Diego González

Former congressman Denver Riggleman isn’t just growing his own hemp these days, the Virginian is now one of the loudest voices in the Republican Party advocating for marijuana normalization. As an Air Force veteran who worked with the NSA, he’s all about those who are serving or who have served the nation in uniform.

That’s why Riggleman’s now on the advisory council for the Veterans Cannabis Project — a group aimed at “improving U.S. military veterans’ quality of life through the opportunity of cannabis.”  

While other Republicans — chiefly former House Speaker John Boehner — opposed all things marijuana while in Congress only to then rake in millions from the nation’s multi-billion dollar cannabis industry once they left, Riggleman says he’s not taking a cent. While he’s not a poor man by any stretch of the word, he says this is all about veterans.

“I don’t think a veteran rolling a blunt to ease some of his pain is a bad deal. And that’s just that simple,” Riggleman tells The News Station.

That’s why Riggleman teamed up with fellow Air Force veteran Doug Distaso, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, to advocate for Virginia vets clamoring for medicinal marijuana in its purest form: The green plant — or ‘flower’ — itself.

Currently, medical marijuana patients in Virginia are confined to using cannabis oils, even as Distaso, Riggleman and the veterans they’re giving voice to have been clamoring for stronger — and cheaper — medicine.  

The lobbying effort may be starting in Virginia, but it’s not ending there. Currently, even in states where cannabis is legal for recreational purposes, doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) aren’t allowed to prescribe or even give advice on marijuana, because it remains a prohibited substance at the federal level.

With veteran suicides now the disturbing new normal in America, Riggleman is convinced of one thing: The current system is broken.

“With PTSD/veterans issues — in the physical and in the, sort of, mental space — I think that if cannabis is showing some type of advantage, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t explore that advantage,” Riggleman says. “There needs to be a federal solution to this. You know, the states could say, ‘We’re gonna do this, this, this and this,’ but for the VA to act, you need a federal solution.”

In December, Riggleman voted in favor of that federal solution. He was one of just five House Republicans to vote in favor of the MORE Act — legislation to federally decriminalize cannabis while also using revenue from sales to invest in communities left blighted by the war on ‘drugs.’

He tells The News Station that during a previous vote on the SAFE Act — legislation to allow locally legal cannabis firms to access U.S. financial markets — he was on the House floor trying to help whip (or count) votes on the GOP side of the aisle. That’s when he witnessed a disturbing level of disdain from some of his GOP colleagues.

“There were four or five of the members — all of them advanced in age — and they were very angry that we would do anything with marijuana,” Riggleman says.

He remembers leaving the circle asking himself about the deadly disconnect that’s dominated some powerful sectors of society for decades and decades now.

“We’re worried about opioid addiction, yet we’ve got opioids everywhere,” Riggleman says. “Why aren’t we using marijuana verse opioids based on safety if it has some of the same effects, right?”

Still, age is only one factor, according to this Republican.

“It’s not just the old guard. I think there’s specific districts that, regardless of facts, marijuana still is marijuana, right? And that’s been sort of ingrained that marijuana is bad or is a gateway drug or something of that nature,” Riggleman says.  

Riggleman became a vocal critic of the contemporary GOP after he was primaried out of office last year for officiating a same-sex marriage. Since then he’s become critical of the GOP — and not because he’s not a conservative. Rather, he says, the party lost its way and now can’t differentiate fact from Fox.

“Using science and facts is something that, I think, the Republican Party’s got to get back to. I think it’s all wrapped into the same envelope or the same package. It’s just interesting to me that we’re still clinging to some of these things in the marijuana side or cannabis side or even hemp,” Riggleman says. “I think the worm has turned, so let’s go ahead and stop, you know, I would say stop half stepping or stop pretending this is a real issue and just go ahead and pull the splinter and allow at least veterans to get some of the benefits from this.”

When he was asked to join the Veterans Cannabis Project, the former congressman didn’t hesitate.

“It’s not that technical,” Riggleman says. “This isn’t some kind of breach where we’re saying we want to microdose all the veterans with LSD. I mean, come on. This is ridiculous. And I just think we need to move on and start using common sense and help people as much as we can based on the science we have available to us.”

Riggleman and Distaso argue marijuana flower is more affordable than oil-based products, and they point out that American insurers won’t cover medical marijuana — even when it’s prescribed by their doctor in states that have legalized cannabis for health reasons.

They argue veterans will go to the black market for marijuana as long as they can’t afford it and that it’s the only medical alternative available to highly addictive and potentially deadly opioids.

“I just think at this point in 2021 it’s time to go ahead and remove the stigma and move forward, you know, at the minimum for vets,” Riggleman tells The News Station. “But I don’t think this precludes anybody [else] using it for PTSD or for physical, medical issues. I think we’re to that point.”

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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