As war vets enter the fray, stigma lessens around cannabis
Republicans have long embraced the war on drugs. But recently many Republicans, including former House Speaker John Boehner, have shifted their stance on legalizing marijuana, thanks in part to veterans who say cannabis softens the symptoms of combat trauma.
Michael Zamora/The Des Moines Register/AP/File
Vietnam War veteran Terry Chambers gets up every morning and promptly commits a state and federal crime in his hometown of Marion, Ind.: He crunches on a cannabis cookie.
It remains illegal to possess marijuana in the United States, yet 60 percent of Americans now live in states that allow either medical or recreational cannabis.
Indiana began allowing the medical use of non-psychoactive cannabis extracts in March, but Mr. Chambers is still committing a criminal misdemeanor with his illicit scratch baking. No matter, he says. A teetotaler who doesn’t smoke, he credits the cookies with breaking a 21-year-long opioid addiction that he says, “took my manhood.”
“I can care less if they arrest me,” he says, “What are they going to do? All I’m trying to do is stay alive.”
Chambers is part of a phalanx of veterans advocating for recognition of cannabis as a safe and effective painkiller to relieve the mental aches and physical wounds of war. The shift in national attitudes, especially among Republican lawmakers, comes amid a backdrop of high opioid addiction and suicide rates among veterans.
Among veterans, support for legalization is high: A 2017 American Legion study found 92 percent of veteran households support more research on cannabis and 83 percent support federal cannabis legalization. Supporters say a positive side effect is its potential to ease opioid addiction and lethal overdoses among veterans.
Deep concerns remain that removing the federal stigma from cannabis may worsen a situation where millions of Americans are using illegal chemicals to get high. The focus, critics argue, should be on making Americans, including veterans, whole and productive without taking a hit.
Nevertheless, the US could be on the brink of reversing course on 50 years of federal marijuana prohibition. President Trump signaled on June 8 that he would sign a bipartisan bill called the STATES Act to deregulate marijuana at the federal level.
Veterans “have been pushed to the brink by the government not helping them with their problems,” says Chris Conrad, a political scientist at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, Calif., which bills itself as “America's first cannabis college,” adding that they “have become a fulcrum point” in the push to bring the US marijuana market, projected to hit $50 billion by 2026, to light.
Already, they are leading the trend: The share of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who treat their symptoms with marijuana grew from 13 to 23 percent between 2002 and 2014, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Veterans take on Washington and weed
Former Navy SEAL Nick Etten, founder of the Veterans Cannabis Project, stands astride the nexus of Washington and weed.
As part of the drug war in Central America in the 1990s, Mr. Etten projected America’s prohibitionary stance to the world. Later, after he returned home, he watched as the opioid epidemic began to rage, especially among veterans returning from the Middle East.
And as his former military buddies began touting the potential of cannabis to end nightmares, ease pain, relieve head injury, and end opioid dependency, Etten began making the rounds, this time armed with a suit, tie, and talking points, on why the VA should consider cannabis as an alternative to powerful pharmaceuticals.
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration in June approved the first drug in the US that contains CBD, a compound found in cannabis. It may pave the way for more research and mainstream acceptance of medical marijuana.
“We owe it to veterans to unpack the medicinal capabilities of this plant,” says Etten. “This is where the rubber is going to meet the road at the federal level [on marijuana], is around veterans’ health.”
Judging by veteran-heavy states moving toward legalization, he may be right.
- Last Tuesday, Oklahoma, where 9 percent of residents are veterans, legalized possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana with a doctor’s note.
- In Texas, which has more veterans than any state except California, the state GOP recently amended its platform to decriminalize medical marijuana.
- And in early June, the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Indiana passed a resolution to “petition the Congress to enact legislation that would provide our veterans with legal, safe medical cannabis programs.”
To be sure, much of the movement toward federal deregulation has to do with changes in the Republican Party, where veterans have joined a broader libertarian movement to get government out of people’s lives.
“There is a feeling by some of the Trumpian antigovernment faction that the dysfunctionality of federal laws on marijuana are just symptomatic of broader government dysfunctionality, so getting rid of federal regulations makes sense from that standpoint,” says Dale Gieringer, author of the “Medical Marijuana Handbook.”
Amid opioid epidemic, marijuana offers solution
What’s giving the issue urgency is a national disaster of overdoses and suicides among veterans. Last week, an Air Force veteran, angry with the VA, lit himself on fire on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta.
A 2016 study by the South Texas Veterans Healthcare system found a nearly 400 percent increase in overdoses and suicidal behavior by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans taking five or more drugs that affect the central nervous system.
The VA’s prescription rate of pain medications such as morphine surged 259 percent between 2001 and 2013. In West Virginia, the VA in Huntington has prescribed take-home opiates at a rate about 230 percent higher than the national average. During a four-hour period in 2017, 28 people in the town overdosed from heroin.
In response to the opioid epidemic, the VA has slashed its opioid prescription rate by 41 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to VA data.
Studies have shown that suicide and overdose deaths are on the decline in medical marijuana states. And even though VA doctors are not allowed to recommend medical marijuana, veterans are encouraged to discuss its use with VA staff.
Indiana veteran Jeff Staker returned from duty to see fellow soldiers become shadows of themselves, riven by nightmares, pain, and addiction. When unable to procure opioids, some turned to heroin and other powerful street drugs, sometimes with lethal impact, he says. He used marijuana to wean himself off opioids prescribed by the VA for pain, and says he worries about those who don’t have that option as the VA turns to alternative therapies, including yoga, to replace opioids.
“Veterans see the danger,” says Mr. Staker, founder of Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis. “If you look at all the stuff that I did as a Marine sniper, I see the battleground,” he says, referring to veterans struggling and dying back home after having been diagnosed with PTSD and addiction.
“Politicians say we’re just adding more drugs to the street,” he adds. “We’re not. People have problems.... It isn’t about getting high.”
At the same time, he acknowledges concerns about deregulation by veterans like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Army Reservist who has rescinded Obama-era protections for medical marijuana, and who told Congress in 2016 that the US government should send a clear message that “good people don't smoke marijuana.” In Congress, Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions, (R) of Texas, has scuttled several bills in committee, including bipartisan ones that would open the door to VA research into cannabis and allowing them access in states where medical marijuana is legal.
Mixed reaction from lawmakers
“Some folks suggest [cannabis] is a less evil replacement for other pain medications, but my answer is that we need to be able to feel some pain in this country and stop trying to eliminate all pain and feeling from our lives,” says David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, and a former Army judge advocate general. “We need an America that gets up in the morning, is clearheaded, motivated to go to work, can tolerate a moderate amount of pain, and follows the rules that are set for us. If that’s ridiculous, well, then it’s ridiculous.”
But other veterans say the debate is more nuanced.
Growing up, Ryan Miller says he smoked pot twice and “felt horrible.” In high school, the self-described jock would ridicule teammates for smoking marijuana. He ended up joining the Army and becoming an infantry captain before his life changed, irrevocably.
“In 2007, I get blown up, legs mangled – any other war I’d be dead,” says Mr. Miller, recounting the events that led up to amputation. “I was all [expletive] up for a couple of years. At first I found marijuana as a nice alternative to pain medication. Two days after [using] my body felt calmer. Yeah, guys can exaggerate stuff [about the benefits of marijuana] but I know people who would be alive today if they had access to cannabis.”
Such stories resonate with Rep. Tom Garrett (R) of Virginia, an Army veteran and former prosecutor.
A longtime medical marijuana skeptic, Congressman Garrett took note when the American Legion, a congressionally-chartered organization, began advocating for marijuana reform. “That was a watershed moment,” he says. “There is no more mainstream, red-blooded, mom and pop and apple pie organization than the Legion. That was stuff that needed to be said.”
Since then, Garrett, who recently said he is battling an alcohol addiction and will not seek re-election, has spent the bulk of his time on the Hill lobbying for a federalism bill he filed last year.
Federal oversight of marijuana overextends the Constitution, he says, and creates a “tyranny of good intentions.” Reverting regulation to the states will, he says, “let people be people.”
Other conservative lawmakers have been looking to Rep. Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee, an Army Medical Corps veteran, for guidance.
Congressman Roe, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says he won’t trust anecdotal claims until double-blind studies are done. He is chief sponsor of a bill that will let the VA do that work.
“[Cannabis] is a chemical. You don’t want state legislators deciding what medicine to prescribe. It has not been FDA approved,” says Roe. “But I also think that the VA is a great place to take up the banner and do the research.”
In mid-June, a ragtag troop of veterans, including Chambers and Staker, gathered outside the VA in Marion, Ind.
After long discussions about symbolism and framing, they took a photo designed to catch Mr. Trump’s eye: Some kneeled like NFL players protesting police brutality. Others held upside-down American flags.
“A soldier will understand the upside-down flag for what it is,” says Staker. “A duress call.”