• November 27, 2020

Veterans Want Medicinal Marijuana but Trump’s Blocked Access

 Veterans Want Medicinal Marijuana but Trump’s Blocked Access

Marines in Kuwait. Photo by the Pentagon; paid for by US taxpayers

It’s Veteran’s Day, so lawmakers are going through their annual ritual of paying lip service to American troops, past and present. But veterans want and deserve more than ass kissing from the political class: They want their government to have their backs like they had ours. But when it comes to the deadly intersection of traumatic injuries, the opioid epidemic, and the disturbingly high veteran suicide rate, the majority of veterans have spoken loudly: They want access to marijuana; not seemingly endless refills of highly addictive opioids.  

Last year, a survey from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) — which represents more than 400,000 veterans — found 83 percent of veterans support medical marijuana. A 2017 poll from the American Legion found more than 80 percent of vets support medicinal cannabis if it’s prescribed by a doctor, while a whopping 90 percent want more research into the health benefits — and potential harms — of marijuana.

Still, after four years of effusively praising the military, President Trump and his administration blocked the very thing most veterans have been clamoring for: Research and access to medicinal cannabis.

“It contradicts, I believe, a promise the president made to the public, which was: he said he wasn’t going to go after cannabis, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) told The News Station earlier this fall.

“They’re not drug dealers.

They’re veterans who brought back invisible wounds from wars.”

Rep. Lou Correa

Correa is the lead sponsor of the V.A. Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019, which merely requires the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (V.A.) to research the effects of marijuana on veterans suffering chronic pain or PTSD. It’s bipartisan and popular, yet it was derailed by Trump, his political advisers, and Senate Republicans who are still waging Nixon’s war on ‘drugs,’ even as veterans are crying out for relief.

“They’re not drug dealers. They’re veterans who brought back invisible wounds from wars. They don’t want to do alcohol. They don’t want to do pharmaceuticals. They want something like cannabis,” Correa said.

Marines in Okinawa, Japan. Photo by the Department of Defense. Paid for by US taxpayers
Marines in Okinawa, Japan. Photo by the Department of Defense. Paid for by US taxpayers

No good surveys exist on cannabis use among veterans, in part because the current prohibition encourages veterans to lie about their marijuana use or else risk losing access to free V.A. health services.

While the legislation requiring the V.A. to study marijuana’s effect on veterans has remained stalled, it enjoys broad bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. That’s because veterans are especially susceptible to intense, dark bouts of depression, which has led to a suicide epidemic among the nation’s current and former soldiers. Yet many experts say medical marijuana can help them avoid the extreme mood and mental swings associated with depression and PTSD.

“Anything we can do to help a veteran who is struggling with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury – you know, we’re losing 20 veterans a day to suicide,” Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) told The News Station ahead of the election.

Like many Republicans, Barr’s skeptical of marijuana. But he also serves on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and supports legislation to expedite cannabis research targeted specifically at the nation’s veterans.

“We got to make sure, when you’re dealing with veterans with post-traumatic stress, you’re very, very careful that you’re not making matters worse; you’re truly helping them,” Barr said. “It is important that as we pursue this that…it’s based on sound science and medical research.”

He’s not alone. Even some Democrats remain wary of marijuana, but not so much when it comes to veterans.

“I myself, personally, haven’t been a big fan of cannabis, but my state’s been really clear, the voters have been really clear about the direction they want to go,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) told The News Station.

But even though he’s not a big fan of marijuana, Larsen hears from veterans willing to do almost anything to wean themselves, their loved ones, or friends off of the pills the V.A. currently prescribes instead of cannabis.   

“Again, looking at cannabis as an option is something I’ve heard from veterans in my district who want to be able to do that, because there is a fear of addiction to opioid painkillers,” Larsen said.

“We’re really trying to just take a more holistic approach.”

Rep. Kathleen Rice

Congress has taken some steps to stem the national opioid crisis that continues to rage from coast to coast, but the majority of lawmakers on the Veterans Affairs’ Committee fear the V.A. is currently pumping veterans with dangerous and potentially deadly pills.

“We’re really trying to just take a more holistic approach so that we’re not just giving them, you know, these three month supplies of opiates that are doing nothing but just making the situation worse,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) told The News Station.  

Still, Rice bemoans that even on such a broadly bipartisan and potentially lifesaving issue it’s all gridlock in Washington. She says bipartisan talks have all but evaporated since coronavirus struck in the spring.

“This is the worst. Look, I thought things were bad when I got here, when I was first elected in 2014. It is so much worse now. Especially with COVID, now you’re not in meeting rooms, not in hearing rooms together anymore — everything’s done over Zoom — and it really has begun to fray at the fabric of this institution, just from a legislative standpoint,” Rice laments.

Rep. Correa of California — the author of the bill to expand research on medical marijuana — says Congress must brush aside petty partisanship when it comes to veterans. He says his legislation is essential because it would pave the way for veterans to use cannabis without fear of losing their V.A. health care. That’s why he says the lingering barriers to marijuana research highlight how the federal government is failing those who risked their lives and sacrificed their bodies and minds for all of us.

“We stuck our head in a hole by not recognizing the reality, which is cannabis enjoys very high use among veterans, and we’re supposed to take care of veterans,” Correa said. “Yet we don’t know how it affects veterans.”   

Matt Laslo

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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