• January 28, 2021

Veteran Groups Split on Democrat’s Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

 Veteran Groups Split on Democrat’s Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Veterans continue to suffer under the nation’s opioid epidemic. Many say they want to use marijuana instead of addictive pills for treatment. Original image to TNS by Glendy Beatriz

Members of the US House of Representatives are now slated to be back in their districts through the election. But some veterans’ groups, sympathetic lawmakers, and cannabis advocates are upset that party leaders decided to postpone a vote on far-reaching legislation to federally decriminalize marijuana until after November’s election. 

“I think they don’t want to embarrass their [presidential] nominee by moving a bill that they’re not even sure he’d sign,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of just three House Republicans to publicly endorse the measure, told The News Station at the Capitol after Democrats pulled the bill. 

The majority of Republican voters have been fully behind marijuana legalization for a few years now, according to PEW. But Democratic leaders opted against moving legislation to simply allow each state to decide its own cannabis policy. Instead they moved the progressive MORE Act, which includes efforts to bring minorities – many who are currently locked out of the cannabis industry because of past convictions – into this booming marketplace. 

The effort blew up in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s face. Democratic leaders pulled the measure, in part, because suburban Democrats felt they were being forced to walk the plank ahead of the election. But that was never the whole story: Veterans’ groups were also divided over the measure. And veterans hold special sway in Washington. 

Most veterans’ groups support efforts to give their members access to medical marijuana – as opposed to the highly addictive and potentially deadly opioid regimens many VA doctors currently prescribe former soldiers – but a handful opposed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act because they feared the five percent tax it came with which they believe will keep many veterans priced out of getting their medicine.

Sean Kiernan is president of the Weed for Warriors Project. He was “ecstatic” the bill was delayed over concerns from suburban Democrats that their support for the MORE Act would be connected to the defund-the-police movement that’s popular with progressives. 

But his joy was bittersweet because he supports elements of the bill, including removing marijuana from the federal category, or schedule, of more dangerous drugs, like heroin.

“It makes us sad because we need the de-scheduling,” Kiernan, who lobbied against the measure, told The News Station in a recent interview. “We need to deal with these issues. But unfortunately, we don’t deal with them in a smart way.”

Among other things, de-scheduling would also resolve the conflict between federal law and the 33 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana locally. It would also open banks and other financial institutions up to the boom that is today’s marijuana industry. Bankers and investors have mostly sat on the sidelines, because they’re risk averse institutions.

That’s why this battle is tied directly to the federal prohibition. Kiernan argues that the five percent tax levied in the MORE Act would push veterans towards the black market and make them the target of law enforcement.

It’s also an economic argument, especially in the midst of this coronavirus recession. This new proposed tax comes as states are already taxing cannabis at high rates. In California, for example, every purchase is taxed anywhere between 28 and 40 percent, according to dispensary-software developer Cova

“You’re already paying 35, 40 percent in places like Los Angeles, California; you’re paying large numbers in places like Illinois and Florida,” Kiernan said. “And unfortunately, that puts them in a position where they’ve got to turn to the illicit market. So the benefits of legality are not helping them.”

Other  veterans’ groups, like the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), are all in with marijuana decriminalization. A spokesman for the American Legion – the nation’s largest veterans’ group with almost two million members – provided a resolution passed by the group in 2016 that called for de-scheduling marijuana while also studying how cannabis could impact veterans suffering from PTSD and other traumatic brain injuries.  

A DAV spokesperson pointed to congressional testimony from this February and back in 2018 where the group called for the immediate de-scheduling of marijuana coupled with VA research, which de-scheduling would allow. 

Kiernan’s position also diverged from marijuana advocates such as NORML. They point out that the MORE Act also would help clear people’s records of past marijuana convictions, which has impacted countless veterans. But that provision is especially important to the disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown folks who have been locked up for years or decades for what is now legal on the outside. 

“These funds would be earmarked for a variety of purposes, including facilitating the review and expungement of past criminal records and to allocate capital and grants to small marijuana businesses, among other purposes,” Paul Armentano, the Deputy Director of marijuana advocacy group NORML, emailed The News Station.

A House vote could come as soon as November, likely after the election. And advocates say that can’t arrive soon enough for veterans. 

Veterans are increasingly using marijuana to treat ailments like PTSD or for managing pain from other permanent injuries. Even if he opposes the tax, Kiernan agrees cannabis gives veterans a safer option for treating chronic mental and physical pain than alcohol or opioids. 

Marijuana has also emerged as an alternative to medication for depression. The number of veteran suicide deaths per year increased from 5,787 in 2005 to 6,139 in 2017 and totaled nearly 79,000 veterans died over that time frame, according to the Veterans Administration

“A lot of these vets are using this as an alternative to psych meds that carry with them suicidal thoughts,” Kiernan said. “I’m a suicide survivor, so it’s I’m very familiar with it, the negative thought cycles that go along with these antidepressants and psych meds. They just don’t work for a lot of us. And in the middle of our overdose and suicide epidemic, I think it’s very natural for people to try to find alternatives to generic drugs that we believe are causing it.”

Humberto Sanchez

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