Amid a national crisis of suicides and opioid abuse by those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more and more veterans are turning to cannabis for a more benign form of relief—and demanding legal recognition of their right to do so.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) largely remains intransigent on allowing access to cannabis. There have been efforts on Capitol Hill to address the dilemma. The most recent is the VA Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2021, which would at least mandate that the VA study use of cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other ailments that disproportionately pose challenges for veterans. It was approved on Nov. 5 by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. But the VA itself continues to oppose the measure.
The first crack in the VA’s anti-cannabis dogma came in December 2017, when the Department issued Directive 1315. This states: “Veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use.” Yet veterans are still being punished for cannabis use, denied benefits through loopholes in the Directive.
The most significant of these is that it only applies to veterans who are actually enrolled in state medical marijuana programs. So veterans not living in one of those 36 states that have established such programs still risk a cutoff of benefits if they use cannabis—even if for the exact same reasons as their card-holding brethren.
Not surprisingly, then, vets are getting vocal in support of pending state medical marijuana measures.
Retired Marine Calls for Medical Program in Tar Heel State
In North Carolina, one of those remaining 14 hold-out states, Senate Bill 711, or the Compassionate Care Act, would legalize medical marijuana for patients with chronic illnesses. Retired US Marine Corps Sgt. George J. Papastrat in the town of Jacksonville is among those speaking out for its passage.
Papastrat admits he was a reluctant believer in the medicinal value of cannabis. “You know…in 15 years in the Marine Corps, the thought really never even crossed my mindthat would necessarily be an option. Until, you know, the pain got real,” he told local WNCT last month.
Papastrat medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2016, suffering from back issues that led him to get a lumbar fusion. He told WNCT he had to take opioids for his pain just to be able to function.
“I was taking opioids on active duty. And then for about three or four years after the fusion, I was taking opioid pain relievers, and that was just to make it so I could stand up, sit down…daily tasks with my children,” Papastrat said.
Papastrat is originally from New York, which has had a limited medical marijuana program since 2014, he it was there that he decided to try cannabis—and found that it worked for him. Since moving to North Carolina, he’s been in a state with no such program. So he’s been reaching out to lawmakers with his story.
“We’re not talking about letting people run around and do drugs,” he assured WNCT. “I’m a local business owner veteran that stayed here and supports my community. And I’m just asking for a fair shake of something other than an opioid.”
The NC Compassionate Care Act would allow use of cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation for conditions such as cancer, epilepsy and PTSD. It would create a new body within the state Department of Health & Human Services empowered issue 10 licenses to companies that could operate up to four dispensaries each. It has already made it through several committees in the state house, but is not expected to go to a floor vote until 2022.
Iraq Experience Follows Vet Home to Texas
The voices of veterans played a role in the recent passage of a law expanding the existing but heretofore harshly limited medical program in Texas.
David Bass, a Desert Storm veteran living in the central Texas town of Killeen, Texas, credits cannabis as critical to his ongoing recovery from PTSD. He served 25 years in the Army and was did a tour of duty in Iraq starting in 2004.
“It was heavy fighting the entire time that the First Cavalry Division was deployed to Iraq. We took some serious casualties,” he recalled to Spectrum News last month, adding that he got through it by focusing on his dream of a making good life back home in Texas. “This is what I dreamed about in Iraq: a place where I could just relax safely, everything’s quiet and peaceful and I don’t have to worry about a rocket falling out of the sky.”
But for those who have survived combat, the simple life is often not so simple. Even back in the safety of Texas, he was having nightmares, outbursts of anger, and vivid flashbacks—the classic symptoms of PTSD. He sought medical treatment—but found that it actually ended up doing more harm.
“It’s ironic that a side effect of some psychotropic pills is suicidal ideation, and they’re supposed to be helping post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bass said.
Spectrum News reports that Bass became aware of cannabis as an alternative treatment after searching online and finding a community of vets going back to the Vietnam War who have been using the herb to treat PTSD.
“The choice was cannabis or the pill, and we chose cannabis,” he said, stressing that he chose to do so reluctantly, as this was before Texas passed its limited medical marijuana law in 2015. Since then, he’s been pushing for expansion of that program, by sharing his story with lawmakers.
These efforts paid off on June 16 of this year, when Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1535, which adds PTSD to the list of ailments covered by the Texas Compassionate Use Program (TCUP). The measure also raises the cap on THC from 0.5 to one percent. Until now, the TCUP had been a “CBD-only” program. Raising the THC cap to 1% brings it just barely into the range of a psychoactive effect.
The new law took effect on Sept. 1. But Bass emphasized to Spectrum News that he remains hopeful further expansion of the program is on the way.