Fed Position on Pot Pushing Vets to Black Market
by Jayson Hawkins
The walls in Alex’s home are decorated with medals earned from two tours as a Marine serving in Iraq. He returned to the U.S. in 2007 at age 21, psychologically scarred by a war that left him suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) and crippling anxiety. Veterans Affairs (“VA”) doctors offered him anti-anxiety drugs, but Alex refused after having watched so many fellow vets become addicted to the legal medications. He turned instead to alcohol, numbing the pain with a bottle of vodka a day until developing a possibly lethal pancreas inflammation. Over the next year, Alex managed to quit using alcohol and cope with his emotional issues by smoking marijuana, which has legal status in his home state of California.
For Alex and other vets like him, pot allows them to function despite the traumas they have experienced. Clinical studies have affirmed the benefits of marijuana and cannabidiol, a nonintoxicating extract from cannabis plants, in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, and chronic pain, and recent trials have supported the use of pot to ease PTSD symptoms. Laws in 33 states and counting have recognized such findings and have legalized either medicinal or recreational marijuana use, and a November 2019 Pew Research Center poll showed that two out of three Americans now favor legalization. Nevertheless, the federal government has thus far maintained its position that pot is a Schedule I narcotic, no different from cocaine or heroin, which has left veterans like Alex in a difficult spot.
Several factors have pushed vets into the black market to buy marijuana. Regardless of the drug’s legal status in their state, vets are leery about frequenting legal dispensaries because of the federal database that is kept of customers. Vets fear this information could be used to cut their disability or other benefits.
Another issue is that many vets own licensed firearms, yet it is a federal crime to possess guns or ammunition if one is also a user of “any controlled substance.”
Perhaps the biggest factor forcing vets into the black market, though, is price. Sean Kiernan, president of the nonprofit Weed For Warriors Project, reports that self-medicating with pot from a legal dispensary costs around $50 a day. With the government paying out only about $3,000 monthly to fully disabled veterans, half their check would go up in smoke.
A number of federal laws have been proposed to create a more workable pot policy for vets. The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019 would order the VA to test the effects of marijuana for treating PTSD, chronic pain, and other issues, while the Veterans Equal Access Act of 2019 would enable healthcare providers at the VA “to provide recommendations and opinions to veterans regarding participation in State marijuana programs.” Both measures passed the House but have progressed no further.
Sue Sisley, a doctor whose research has supported the therapeutic use of pot to treat PTSD, said vets have been frustrated by the lack of political action.
“They see bills like that come and go every session,” she said. “I think the vets feel like these efforts are futile, and that’s why they’ve gone underground with their home grows and sharing community.”
Even the traditionally conservative American Legion, the biggest organization representing veterans, has gotten on board with changing federal policy regarding marijuana.
“Society has changed,” the Legion’s national legislative director Melissa Bryant, said. “We’ve come around on recognizing that cannabis could be an effective means of alternative therapy and medication.”