A California group is fighting to end a federal prohibition that makes it impossible for veterans to get cannabis through the VA.
Alex is 34 and lives outside of Sacramento. Like many Californians, he vapes marijuana concentrate for a variety of health problems such as anxiety. But even though he lives within a half-hour drive of a legal dispensary, Alex purchases his cannabis on what he likes to call the “duty-free” market. About once a month, he drives an hour to an acquaintance’s house to purchase about an ounce of concentrate, for about half of what he would pay at a state-certified recreational dispensary.
There’s a reason Alex buys on the black market. He’s a disabled military veteran.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project just under 2 million Californians, or around 3.4 percent of the state’s population, get prescriptions for medical marijuana each year. But because of federal drug laws that still consider marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin, the Department of Veterans Affairs will not prescribe marijuana to its patients, even if they are totally disabled like Alex.
“I use cannabis for PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], anxiety, hypervigilance,” says Alex, who is being identified by a family name for privacy reasons. Alex is a Marine who deployed twice to Iraq from 2004 to 2007. He fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah, one of the fiercest battles in the Iraq War.
In 2007, when he left the Marine Corps at age 21, Alex was offered anti-anxiety medicines by the VA doctors. He declined the pharmaceuticals. “I’d seen so many people get hooked on medications,” he remembers. Instead, he got hooked on alcohol, drinking a bottle of vodka a day. “I wanted to forget,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I wanted to move forward.” But his excessive drinking caused pancreatitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the pancreas. It took him about a year to stop drinking, at which time he switched over to cannabis and started growing his own. It was legal at the time in his county, but is now illegal in California for people looking to grow more than six plants outdoors.
Theoretically, a veteran caught by law enforcement using California’s illicit cannabis market faces little more than a small fine. But given the federal laws against marijuana, a veteran in that situation could find his or her status with the VA in question. And veterans who openly use cannabis, even in cannabis-legal states, in the words of the Military Times, “commonly run into challenges” when trying to find employment.
Even as marijuana legalization continues to expand across the country (33 states have some form of legal marijuana on their books and well-known former politicians have becomes spokesmen for the cannabis industry), many of the nation’s 18.2 million veterans occupy an uncomfortable limbo between rapidly liberalizing cultural attitudes and an unbending federal standard that hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Veterans looking for alternatives to addictive and dangerous opioids and other pharmaceuticals are effectively prevented from using marijuana, by price, policy and quite often the ongoing stigma that marijuana still carries.
Veterans groups are beginning to make themselves heard on this subject in Washington. In 2016, the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization and a group known for its conservative politics, urged Congress to remove marijuana from its list of prohibited drugs. It also called on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to allow privately funded medical marijuana producers to take part in “safe and efficient cannabis drug research development.” Currently, a handful of bills that would promote veterans’ access to medical marijuana have passed the House.
Dale Schafer, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, who spent five years in federal prison for growing medical marijuana at home, serves as a legal counsel for the Weed for Warriors Project, a nonprofit cannabis advocacy organization for veterans with chapters in politically consequential states such as Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin and California. Schafer notes that the cost of cannabis on the state-legal markets is still too high for most veterans.
“The legal market is not targeting veterans, especially disabled veterans who live on fixed incomes,” he says. “It’s targeting people with a lot more disposable income.”
WFWP President Sean Kiernan says a 100 percent-disabled veteran receives around $3,000 a month in VA disability payments. If that veteran goes to a legal dispensary, Kiernan says, they will need to spend about $50 a day to medicate.
“That comes to around $1,500, give or take a few hundred dollars, a month,” he adds. “So they’re eating up 50 percent of their disability. Whereas, in the black market they go out and buy size, quantity and variety they can’t get in the legal market.”
Kiernan has been frustrated at how the cannabis legalization movement has appeared to bypass military veterans, despite their vocal support and their proven record of showing up at the polls.
“I think veterans got tired of seeing groups advocate in their name without seeing any benefit,” he says during a conversation from his home in California.
Sean Kiernan, 48, considers himself a prime example of how cannabis can help a veteran. A specialist in the U.S. Army Airborne, he served in Central America in the 1990s. He returned to civilian life and worked in New York as a hedge fund manager. Kiernan admits that while coping with a stressful Wall Street job, he didn’t come to terms with his PTSD, his hair-trigger anger and other mental health issues.
He attempted suicide in 2011. Kiernan’s doctor at the time put him on a variety of prescriptions that failed to work, he said, and “made me feel awful.” Looking for alternatives, Kiernan tried cannabis and found that it helped with his symptoms.
Kiernan became involved with WFWP in 2015. He sees the organization, and others like it, as a place where veterans can give one another support but where they can also work as a unified political unit. WFWP also organizes monthly chapter meetings, which draw up to 1,000 veterans nationally. Veterans can obtain cannabis donated by growers, both legal and black market.
There are several factors that have forced many veterans to turn to black market cannabis sources, rather than purchase from state-legal dispensaries. A major controversy is current federal gun regulations, which make it unlawful for users of “any controlled substance” to ship, transport, receive or possess firearms or ammunition.
“The federal law is not real friendly if you get caught with guns around … a Schedule One Substance,” says Dale Schafer. “They can really cram that up your colon, really far.”
Another concern that keeps many veterans away from legal dispensaries is uneasiness about being on a federal database for information that could be used against them.
“The vets that I’m looking at, that were being served well by medical marijuana, they were afraid to be part of a registry,” says Michael Krawitz, a disabled Air Force vet and executive director for the Virginia-based Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. He says veterans he’s spoken to fear retribution by the federal government; of “having their benefits, especially their financial benefits, taken away from them as a result of being … associated with marijuana.”
WFWP’s Kiernan says veterans in his organization often insist on remaining off-camera and off the record, especially in states with stricter cannabis laws. “In Virginia, our active chapter members won’t even take a photo,” he says, “because half of the vets there work for the federal government.”
Thirty-three states have legalized some form of medical marijuana, and 11 have legalized recreational use. A Pew Research Center poll published last November found that two-thirds of Americans believe marijuana should be legal, while the number of those opposing legalization fell from 52 percent in 2010 to 32 percent late last year.
Support for cannabis legalization is also on the rise among veterans. According to a 2017 American Legion survey more than 90 percent of veteran households supported marijuana research. Another 82 percent reportedly wanted medical cannabis as a federally legal treatment option.
Military veterans are not a political monolith, but they are enthusiastic voters who reportedly make up about 13 percent of the voting population. In the 2016 election, according to the New York Times, vets voted at a rate 6 percentage points higher than their nonveteran counterparts. Their demands regarding cannabis legalization, therefore, ought to have some weight when it comes to federal and state policies and politics.
Veterans are also a group in crisis. A 2012 report by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that up to 22 veterans were dying by suicide daily. While the VA has since lowered that statistic, some veterans’ advocacy groups say that number is probably much higher—closer to 50 a day—when opioid overdoses and despair over opioid addiction are taken into account.
The VA and lawmakers “need to understand how important cannabis is to veterans,” says Patrick Seifert, a Marine Corps veteran who founded the Twenty22Many advocacy group in Olympia, Washington. “There’s no demographic that benefits more from cannabis.”
Recent clinical trials conducted and supervised by Sue Sisley, a medical doctor and researcher based in Arizona, suggest that cannabis has potential as a treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD. Data from those clinical trials were submitted for publication this past December. Sisley and her colleagues are awaiting confirmation of a publication date.
Other studies, meanwhile, have found that marijuana and cannabidiol, a nonintoxicating extract from cannabis and hemp, have helped veterans and others with ailments including chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia.
But due to the federal government’s decades-long classification of cannabis as a so-called Schedule One drug, one that has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” U.S. scientists have been blocked from properly conducting research on cannabis. And due to its federal prohibition VA heath care providers are not allowed to recommend cannabis to veterans, or assist veterans in obtaining cannabis.
There have been efforts on Capitol Hill to close the gaps between cannabis laws and cultural attitudes on cannabis legalization, especially when it comes to the needs of veterans.
This past March the House Veterans Affairs Committee passed HR 712, known as the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019. The measure would direct the VA to carry out clinical trials of the effects of cannabis regarding chronic pain, PTSD “and for other purposes.” The House VA Committee also passed HR 1647, known as the Veterans Equal Access Act of 2019, which would allow VA doctors and other health care providers “to provide recommendations and opinions to veterans regarding participation in State marijuana programs.”
Sisley notes, however, that the veterans she works with are exasperated by what they see as more political theater coming from Washington, rather than any real, concrete efforts to assist veterans. As a result, she says, more veterans are staying away from state-legal cannabis dispensaries and growing their own pot.
“They see bills like that come and go every session, and they never get out of committee or they always end up failing by a few votes,” she says. “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. Because they don’t have any hope that Congress is going to fix this, with all the gridlock there.”
Change is happening, albeit slowly, when it comes to veterans and cannabis.
The American Legion, which urged Congress to remove marijuana from its Schedule One classification, also has called on the DEA to allow privately funded medical marijuana producers to take part in “safe and efficient cannabis drug research development.”
Melissa Bryant, the Legion’s national legislative director, acknowledges that veterans are often cynical when it comes to the government, and that cynicism extends to cannabis reform. However, she says, if there’s a safe and effective use of cannabis that can be applied to the nation’s veterans, then it should be implemented by the VA.
“We have an evolving social paradigm within this country, in that people are looking toward alternative therapies,” she tells POLITICO, “especially with our looming mental health crisis, our looming opioid crisis. Society has changed. We’ve come around on recognizing that cannabis could be an effective means of alternative therapy and medication.”
“In the long run, the train is moving; there’s no stopping it,” says Alex, the Marine veteran. “They’re just trying to put up roadblocks, taking out amendments to make it look like they’re doing stuff. It’s all a dog and pony show, we know that. We’re not the first people fighting for veterans’ rights, not the first advocates fighting for cannabis. But we’ve come a long way in the last 10 years, and I believe in the next 10 we’ll come even farther.”