Many Veterans Have to Break the Law to Use Medical Cannabis

A soldier uses binoculars to look out over a vast landscape at a helicopter in the distance. Perhaps he is also looking to a future where veterans have access to MMJ.

For veterans in states with restrictive medical programs, acquiring the medicinal benefits of cannabis means breaking the law.


There are almost 900,000 military veterans living in New York State, and as many of 20 percent of them may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; if they served overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan — or if they were in Vietnam — that number may be as high as 30 percent, according to the Veterans Administration.

To call PTSD a debilitating nightmare is not an exaggeration: Sleepless nights, anxiety-filled days, and suicidal thoughts are common. The most common treatment is a pharmaceutical cocktail: anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and opioids.

To hear veterans themselves tell it, many of them would prefer to smoke weed.

The Veterans Administration is overwhelmed with PTSD sufferers who want to use cannabis to control their symptoms. But since the VA is federal, vets have to turn to state medical marijuana programs.

But many don’t even bother with that: According to the VA, more than 20 percent of PTSD sufferers also suffer from “cannabis use disorder” — a nice, clinical way of calling someone a total pothead.

Veterans living in California — home to several large military bases and many veterans — have no trouble getting cannabis, but they’re the lucky ones. In Illinois, veterans with PTSD can use cannabis now only after a judge ordered it.

In New York State, if a veteran with PTSD wants any cannabis, he or she will probably have to break the law. If they want to smoke any cannabis, they will absolutely have to break the law.

New York State has one of the country’s most restrictive medical-marijuana laws: Fewer than 17,000 patients have been approved to use cannabis in the state, the New York Times reported in May, despite a population of 19.2 million people.

Until this spring, to qualify for a medical cannabis recommendation, patients had to suffer from one of 11 very serious diseases, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, cancer and AIDS. Earlier this year, chronic pain and menstrual cramps were added to the list of qualifying conditions.

State Sen. Diane Savino, who represents the Trump stronghold of Staten Island in New York City, is the sponsor of a bill that would add PTSD to the state’s list of qualifying conditions. Veterans groups are now lobbying her colleagues in the state Legislature to have PTSD added to the list, but as the Albany Times-Union recently reported, the bill has not been an easy sell — even among some veterans.

Sen. Tom Croci, a retired Navy commander and a Republican who chairs the state Senate’s influential veterans committee, told the newspaper that giving cannabis to a veteran who is not suffering from PTSD — but somehow thinks he or she is — may cause more harm than good. Instead, he prefers “abstinence-based” treatments, including “equine therapies,” he told the newspaper.

That’s right: instead of pills and instead of pot, try riding this horse the next time you feel like jumping out of your skin because of combat-level anxiety.

Even if PTSD is added to the list, New York’s vets may find themselves patronizing their local weed dealer anyway. Would-be patients still need to find a doctor willing to write them a recommendation. That list is not public, and unlike other states, not all doctors advertise their services.

And once you do get a recommendation, the only cannabis products available are tinctures and oils — no smokeable cannabis flower is allowed. Thus, if a dispensary is too far away — and some patients are a three-hour drive away — and if they don’t have what you want to begin with, there’s little to no incentive to leave the black market.

For all these reasons, despite a business-friendly ratio of 975,000 people per marijuana dispensary, the state’s 20 dispensaries are fielding so little demand under current rules that a trade organization representing them filed suit against the state in May to block the addition of new license-holders.

But New Yorkers with PTSD acquired from military service still have it better than the millions of vets who live in Texas, Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee — where no workable form of medical cannabis is available aside from hemp-derived CBD oil.

In America, showing support for the military is de rigueur. No lawmaker would publicly cop to doing anything else, for risk of political suicide. But as this episode illustrates, the patriotic show is mostly that — a show — when it comes to cannabis medicine access.

TELL US, are you a veteran struggling with access to cannabis medicine?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

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