The Trump administration’s attack on legal marijuana, already stymied by large states determined not to roll back the clock, is increasingly confronting an even more politically potent adversary: military veterans.
Frustrated by federal laws restricting their access to a drug many already rely on to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and opioid addiction, veterans have become an influential lobbying force in the marijuana debate after sitting on the sidelines for years.
The 2 million-member American Legion this spring got involved in a big way by launching a campaign to reduce marijuana restrictions, which it says hurt veterans and may aggravate a suicide epidemic.
In this Oct. 4, 2016 photo, farmworkers remove stems and leaves from newly-harvested marijuana plants, at Los Suenos Farms, America's largest legal open air marijuana farm, in Avondale, southern Colo. During the fall 2016 harvest, the 36-acres at Los Suenos is expected to yield 5 to 6 tons.AP photo
The move reflects the changing politics of marijuana, and of a conservative, century-old veterans service organization facing new challenges as its membership grows with those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We were hearing these compelling stories from veterans about how cannabis has made their lives better,” said Joseph Plenzler, a spokesman for the American Legion. “That they were able to use it to get off a whole cocktail of drugs prescribed by VA doctors, that it is helping with night terrors, or giving them relief from chronic pain.”
At the same time, some patients complained that Veterans Affairs doctors refused to offer any advice for using medical marijuana yet also made a record of who was using it, raising fears that such information might be used to punish former service members or strip their benefits.
The legion’s call to reclassify marijuana federally from a drug that has no medical benefit and is more dangerous than cocaine to one that is in the same category as legal prescription painkillers has caught the attention of lawmakers.
A measure by the legion that would permit VA doctors to give their patients the sign-off they need to access medical marijuana in states where it is legal was approved by a key Senate budget committee earlier this month on a 24-7 vote, with nine Republicans voting in favor. The measure is among the veterans-related marijuana legislation getting new traction at an otherwise challenging time in Washington for pot advocates.
“This is one marijuana issue a lot of Republicans are interested in,” said Sarah Trumble, deputy director of social policy at Third Way, a centrist think tank that advocates easing federal restrictions on cannabis. “It’s the baseball and apple pie of marijuana.”
The legion’s involvement has helped lure new lawmakers to the debate, such as Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who coauthored a bill that would recategorize marijuana as a drug with therapeutic value. Longtime marijuana proponent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican, constantly raises the issue of veterans on the House floor.
“It is a travesty,” he said in one recent speech. “They are given opiates instead of maybe something they can derive from marijuana. … And our veterans end up killing themselves because now they are addicted to an opiate.”
Such thinking is driven by a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research white paper that found opioid overdose deaths are 16 percent lower in states where medical marijuana is legal.
It has all put VA leadership in an awkward spot. Soon after the legion began its push in May, VA Secretary David Shulkin acknowledged evidence is emerging that cannabis maybe helpful in treating veterans, and it is something the agency intends to examine.
A medical marijuana user for PTSD and a back injury lights up after his speech to the Washington State Liquor Control Board Thursday night, March 7, 2013 at the Kitsap Conference Center in Bremerton, Washington.AP Photo/Kitsap Sun, Larry Steagall
But Shulkin is bumping up against powerful forces in the Trump administration tacking hard in the reverse direction on pot. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pressing Congress not to renew a rider that prohibits federal law enforcement from targeting medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal. In a letter to congressional leaders, he stressed that marijuana has no accepted medical use under federal law.
The increased profile of veterans comes years into an effort by researchers to conduct a federally approved study of the potential benefit of using pot to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Federal regulators had long refused to approve such a study, in large part because marijuana was determined by their agencies to have no medical use. A study was finally cleared in April 2016, but even now researchers find themselves confronting obstacles. They are permitted, for example, to use only marijuana grown at a federal research facility in Mississippi which lacks the concentration of active ingredients available in the products sold in dispensaries.
“It’s been a seven-year battle,” said Sue Sisley, principal investigator for the study, which is being conducted by the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. “There is so much government red tape surrounding cannabis research.”
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