On Veterans Day this November, some hearty veterans of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam conflicts will pitch tents on the sidewalk at the entrance to the Veterans Affairs headquarters. Their top demand: that the agency supply veterans with cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress and other ailments related to their service.
The band of brothers planning to launch their encampment on Friday, Nov. 9 are calling themselves the “Veterans and Friends Against War and Nuclear Weapons.” These traditional pro-peace demands will also be stressed in their actions, but the lead banner for the protest encampment, which they plan to maintain through the entire Veterans’ Day weekend, will read “VETS DEMAND VA MEDICAL MARIJUANA ACCESS NOW.”
The group first came together in 2011, when veterans camped out in Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza as part of that year’s Occupy Wall Street movement. That fall, they held their first protest encampment outside the Veteran Administration offices — to bring attention to the growing problem of veteran suicides.
A Veterans’ Day Protest for Cannabis
Lead organizer John Penley, a Navy vet from North Carolina, told Cannabis Now that they’re planning for the protest to include consuming cannabis in front of the VA office.
“We’re calling for folks to bring medical marijuana edibles,” Penley said. “Cannabis is legalized in D.C., and they’re not going to want to arrest a bunch of vets at the VA office on Veterans’ Day weekend.”
In addition to the sidewalk, Penley also expects some vets to pitch tents in the VA headquarters’ parking lot, which is federal property. Pursuant to the 2017 Initiative 71, giving away cannabis is perfectly legal in the District of Columbia as long as no money is exchanged, and public smoking is just a ticketable offense. However, this does not apply on federal property.
Currently, VA health care providers are prohibited from recommending that their patients use cannabis or helping their patients obtain cannabis treatments. However, under a 2010 policy change, veterans will not be denied treatment if they participate in a state-legal medical marijuana program, or discuss their cannabis use with their VA healthcare provider. There have been efforts both in Congress and in the courts to allow VA doctors to prescribe or recommend medical marijuana.
Another organizer of the event is Ed Hunt, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Lynchburg, Virginia. He served as a medic at the Freedom Plaza encampment in 2011 and then camped out at the VA office with Penley later that year.
“I’ve been using pot since I got out of the military in ’71,” he tells Cannabis Now. “The VA just wanted to pump me full of drugs. Remember, in ’71 there was no PTSD. They were just calling it depression. It was ‘shell-shock’ in World War I and ‘battle fatigue’ in World War II. After Vietnam, they tried to push all that off to the side. The sooner you die, the quicker they don’t have to deal with you.”
Hunt says medical marijuana helped him survive. “If I need to go to sleep because my mind is racing, I dip into my little stash and I vape, and get a full night’s sleep,” he says.
When asked about his experiences in Vietnam that he’s still dealing with all these years later, Hunt responds: “It wouldn’t be good for me to talk about that. After I got off the phone. I’d have to deal with the memories.”
Is Cannabis a Solution to the Veteran Health Crisis?
Last September, the VA reported, “After adjusting for differences in age and sex, risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among veterans when compared to U.S. non-veteran adults.” Studies have shown some of these suicides to be linked to PTSD, while other studies have indicated that cannabis can be an effective treatment for the syndrome.
“Veteran suicides are still at a high rate,” Penley says. “We think access to medical marijuana would help there too. And we’re demanding no cutbacks to VA medical centers. The Trump administration is stealthily trying to privatize veterans’ access to healthcare, sending vets to private doctors more and more.”
Penley also notes the VA has limited veteran access to opioids, making cannabis a necessary option for pain management.
“The VA has made access to opiate painkillers practically nonexistent,” he said. “In order to get opioids from the VA, you have to be practically terminal.”
Penley said he was getting codeine from the VA for chronic back pain, but it was cut off two years ago. He believes this policy is, paradoxically, encouraging opioid addiction, and that cannabis may point to a way out.
“We have to take over-the-counter pain meds, or go on the black market,” Penley said. If the VA would make medical marijuana available, it would help a lot.”
On Veterans’ Day itself — Sunday, Nov. 11 — Penley’s group has a permit to hold a rally in McPherson Square, just a few blocks from the VA headquarters, where veterans will be speaking at an open mic.
Trump’s military parade was scheduled to take place on Saturday, Nov. 10, until Trump tweeted on Aug. 17 that he had canceled the parade because the costs were too high. Before the parade was canceled, Penley says he and his comrades plan to march to the parade route.
While their pro-peace message may not be popular with many Trump supporters, Penley said he had hoped to win even some of them with the demands for medicinal cannabis and no cutbacks at the VA medical centers. “I think we’ll get a good reception from vets,” he says. “We’re supporting all vets, no matter what their political affiliation may be.”
This protest comes as the VA is mired in controversies and a leadership shake-up. Recent media accounts have aired claims that a clique of Trump’s golfing buddies from his Mar-a-Lago resort, revolving around Marvel Entertainment chair Isaac Perlmutter, have been informally advising Trump on VA policy (while paying monthly fees to Mar-a-Lago). Advocacy group ProPublica calls them the “Shadow Rulers of the VA.” Based on e-mails they received through the Freedom of Information Act, ProPublica reports that they’ve been pushing for “expanding the use of the private sector” for veterans’ medical care. In a write-up on the findings, New York Magazine accuses the Trump administration of “launching stealth attacks on veterans.” Advocacy group VoteVets has just launched a federal suit against the VA over the allegations.
John Penley’s Long, Strange Trip
Penley’s own journey to activism has roots in his military service. Enlisting in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army in 1972, he served four years — mostly as what he calls a “Cold War Navy air-traffic controller.” He says he controlled air traffic with nuclear weapons, which he credits for contributing to his PTSD. Although he served in Italy and Greece, he is technically a Vietnam-era veteran. He still gets a monthly disability check from the VA for PTSD and a degenerative back condition.
As a part of exorcising his angst over his service-time proximity to nuclear weapons, Penley became an anti-nuclear activist after his discharge. In 1982, he actually penetrated federal property during a protest at the Savannah River Site nuclear-weapons fuel plant in South Carolina. He was convicted under the Atomic Energy Act and sentenced to a year in federal prison. Instead, he went on the lam, fleeing to Nicaragua, which was then under the control of the revolutionary Sandinista regime that the Reagan administration was trying to overthrow. He spent a year there before being arrested by Nicaraguan authorities for an expired passport. He was eventually deported back to the U.S. and was arrested as he got off the plane in Miami.
After serving his time, he relocated to New York’s Lower East Side, where he worked for years as a photojournalist, covering the city’s activist scene — including cannabis advocacy. He was part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment until it was evicted in November 2011, and then joined the vets’ encampment in D.C.’s Freedom Plaza. He recently moved back to his native Asheville, NC.
He sees his current campaign as bridging a cultural divide. “People will be coming from Colorado to bring vegan food for our encampment, but some vets will also be doing BBQ,” he chuckles.
TELL US, do you think veterans deserve access to medical marijuana?