Veterans from across the country will be gathering in our nation's capital on Memorial Day this year to not only honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but to advocate for a cause that isn't typically associated with our nation's heroes -- the legalization of marijuana.
The veterans and advocates taking part in the Memorial Day Veterans Rally DC hope to change the stigma that surrounds cannabis, the preferred term for marijuana among advocates, by arguing that this alternative medicine is already helping some vets treat issues like PTSD, chronic pain and depression -- all without the use of dangerous & addictive prescription drugs like opioids. One of their rallying cries is "plants over pills," and they're not just coming from the usual legal pot hot-spots like Colorado.
The speakers are traveling from places as far west as Alaska, as far south as Texas, and as far north as New England to support the cause, and to share their stories of how legal marijuana helped ease their pain, alleviate symptoms of PTSD, and even get back into the workforce. Among those scheduled to speak are one of the first responders to the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, the mother of a 24-year-old Marine who took his own life after battling PTSD, and the owner of a veteran-operated cannabis company dedicated to "medical cannabis for military veterans."
Beyond a lack of access in all 50 states, advocates say one of the biggest problems is that veterans are forced to pay for this alternative treatment out of pocket, despite what they say are life-saving results. That's due to Department of Veterans Affairs regulations which stipulate VA doctors still cannot prescribe medicinal marijuana to patients, despite the fact that they are allowed to "discuss marijuana use with veterans as part of comprehensive care planning."
"It is clear that medical research into the safety and efficacy of cannabis usage for medical purposes is timely, necessary, and widely supported by the veteran community."
THE VA GETS INVOLVED IN LEGAL WEED
That could soon change, and advocates may wind up having the VA to thank for it. Earlier this month, Congress passed a bill making the Department of Veterans affairs the first federal agency to conduct research into the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis. The lack of federal research has been one of the biggest issues in the debate over the potential benefits of legal cannabis, medicinal or otherwise.
The Veterans Affairs Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018 was pushed over the finish line thanks to the overwhelming support of veterans across the country. A 2017 survey released by the American Legion, a congressionally-charted veterans group, revealed 92 percent of veteran households support further research into the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis. Another 83 percent of veterans said they support the legalization of cannabis nationwide, and 82 percent expressed a desire for it to become a federally-legal treatment option.
In a press release, American Legion officials also noted that veterans don't just support more research, "22 percent of veterans are currently using cannabis to treat a medical condition."
Those poll numbers did not fall on deaf ears. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans affairs and himself a medical doctor, argued "it is clear that medical research into the safety and efficacy of cannabis usage for medical purposes is timely, necessary, and widely supported by the veteran community." Rep. Roe, who is also the co-chair of the House GOP Doctors Caucus and a member of the Health Caucus, mentioned PTSD specifically in advocating for the study, before adding that veterans might not be the only ones who benefit from such a study.
The bill, he argued, is "a pragmatic and bipartisan piece of legislation that would advance our understanding of the impacts of medicinal marijuana usage and could improve the lives of veterans and other Americans."
Derek Cloutier, a Marine who already uses medicinal cannabis for his PTSD and chronic pain, says allowing the VA to conduct research is a good "baby step," but it's too early to tell how much good it will do. In the meantime, he says many veterans will continue to suffer because of VA policies regarding cannabis -- even in states where it is medicinally legal. For some, that means breaking the law just so they can get their hands on what they say is a more effective, and less dangerous, form of treatment.
"I've been told straight by a vet that I can go to a VA hospital and be prescribed opiates, Adderall -- anything if they play their cards right, and then go sell the pills on the streets... just so they can buy cannabis and heal themselves," Cloutier says.
Cloutier returned from his deployment in Fallujah, Iraq, and found himself in a less-than-ideal employment situation for a veteran struggling with symptoms of PTSD -- working as a maximum-security prison guard. "That exacerbated my PTSD ten-fold," he says, and it didn't help when ISIS started re-taking control of the same cities he fought to liberate.
Cloutier would drink heavily at night to numb himself from both his growing PTSD symptoms, and the stresses of his new job. He says the support groups for veterans that he tried weren't of much help, either, with most meetings typically ending with a night of drinking. It wasn't until a friend recommended cannabis as an alternative to both the alcohol, and the prescription drugs Cloutier was taking, that he finally got a good night's sleep. Along with it came a new purpose in life.
Thanks to the laws in Massachusetts, where Cloutier lives, he is legally allowed to grow and consume his own cannabis. Now, he's working tirelessly to help other veterans find that same peace of mind by organizing events like the Memorial Day rally, and through a group he created called the New England Veterans Alliance (NEVA).
Part of the problem, according to Cloutier, is that most people --particularly veterans -- are still scared to even talk about cannabis, something he chalks up to the remnants of the so-called "reefer madness" of the early 20th century. Breaking down those barriers is one of the main reasons he says he started NEVA.
"I've been told straight by a vet that I can go to a VA hospital and be prescribed opiates, Adderall - anything if they play their cards right, and then go sell the pills on the streets... just so they can buy cannabis and heal themselves,"
"The more I learned about it, the more I educated myself about it... the stigma came down, the stereotypes came down," Cloutier said. "All these walls around me, that I was terrified to say I'm a cannabis user... that's part of the problem."
With NEVA, Cloutier hopes to connect with and educate veterans who may be thinking about the world of medicinal marijuana, but who are too scared to ask anyone about it because of VA policies, or social stigmas. Since starting his group, he's discovered veterans of WWII and Vietnam, and even a former VA doctor, who are using cannabis for treatment.
While Cloutier obviously considers it a win when he convinces vets to ditch their opioid prescriptions for cannabis, he notes there are plenty of other advantages to becoming more knowledgeable about cannabis. Many of NEVA's members have taken their newfound knowledge to secure jobs in the ever-growing cannabis industry.
And even if it doesn't lead to a job, Cloutier argues that the process of growing and cultivating the plant itself can be a major benefit --particularly for those who have served. "The biggest thing is giving a vet a purpose," Cloutier said. "Not everyday will I want to get up and care for [my plants], but I have to if I want to help myself. You need to check on it, water it, care for it.
"In the military, that's the opposite of what you're doing, at least for an infantry guy like me. You're taught to destroy, you're war-torn and battle-ready, but cannabis brings people together -- growing, smoking and consuming. And it's something that'll continue to bring people together more and more," he argued.
"ONE HIGH FOR ANOTHER"
Not all veterans agree with Cloutier. Fellow Marine and retired Staff Sgt. Johnny Joey Jones says he's tried cannabis before, and argues that veterans who use it to ween themselves off of prescription drugs like opioids are just "trading one high for another." He says what we really need to be doing is fixing the problems that veterans are coming home with, not just adding a new type of band-aid that he says doesn't even have much research to back it.
Jones agrees that the VA conducting official research is a good first step, but he's also concerned that his fellow vets are becoming "pawns" in what is quickly becoming a multimillion-dollar game of chess between lawmakers and lobbyists.
Some of Jones' fellow vets, and even some of his family are using cannabis -- and suggested he try it himself. One of them has managed to stay off of pills for five years because of it, but Jones still isn't convinced.
And when it comes to the potential job benefits, or the therapy that advocates say can come from simply growing the plant, Jones had a simple response. "I went down to Loews and for $500 I bought all of the tools and equipment I need to make furniture in my garage," he said. "And that's something that I can do legally in all 50 states."