A Vietnam veteran and career educator at an elite military training school now finds himself resorting to a Reagan-era executive order in hopes of clearing his name. Henry Cobbs' crime — vaping a non-psychoactive form of cannabis to treat his prostate cancer.
Cobbs, 77, was forced out of his job last month as dean of academics for the Air Force Special Operations School (AFSOS) at Hurlburt Field near Fort Walton Beach, a position he had retained since 2009.
A 22-year military veteran with two master's degrees and a doctorate in administration of higher education, the retired Air Force captain was issued a “Notice of Removal” in May for his “use of cannabidiol (CBD), a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance” by Lt. Col. Michael S. Lowe, citing a witness who saw Cobbs “smoke your 'medicine.'” On Aug. 13, Col. Robert A. Masaitis, Commander of the 492nd Special Operations Training Group, rejected Cobb's appeal, informing him: “This action will become a permanent part of your Official Personnel Folder.”
Hours before his scheduled termination, Cobbs filed for retirement in order to retain his benefits. But he says money isn't the issue.
“My life has been sort of a storybook, to tell you the truth. I've been blessed,” said Cobbs, who also worked as executive assistant superintendent for computer technology services in the Atlanta public school system, as well as director for management information systems at Alabama State University. “But to end it on a note like this is reprehensible. What I'm trying to do is protect my legacy.”
Prescribed by a doctor
Although CBD lacks the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC component that evokes euphoria, the federal government maintains that CBD has no medicinal value, despite numerous studies to the contrary, and is thus illegal. But Cobbs says he has a 32-year-old federal directive on his side, called the Drug-Free Workplace. “What they're doing,” he said, “is conveniently cherry-picking their policies.”
In Executive Order 12564 Sec. 7(c), signed by President Reagan in 1986, the “definitions” section defines “illegal drugs” as controlled substances “included in Schedule I or II.” But it adds, “The term 'illegal drugs' does not mean the use of a controlled substance pursuant to a valid prescription or other uses authorized by law.”
By that standard, says Cobbs, he is guaranteed legal access to CBD, even as a federal employee. Although he says he doesn't own a medical marijuana card, he submitted in his defense what he describes as a doctor's prescription for CBD oil.
Noting Cobbs' prostate cancer and inflammation, the physician, Dr. Ryan McWhorter of Montgomery, Alabama, indicated in a letter to Masaitis that his office “prescribed CBD oil” for Cobbs, who “purchases this medication from our office only.”
McWhorter did not respond to the Herald-Tribune's request for additional information. A public information officer with AFSOC's 492nd Special Operations Wing said she could not comment on individual personnel matters.
“The current state of Federal law is that medicinal use of marijuana and marijuana derivatives is not legal,” spokeswoman Ciara Travis said. “We will continue to follow the law and expect our employees to do the same. We are committed to providing a drug-free workplace for our employees.”
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says doctors are prohibited from writing prescriptions for marijuana — they can only make recommendations — because a Schedule 1 drug by definition has zero medicinal value.
The Food and Drug Administration is the arbiter of which products have legitimate medical uses. In June, the FDA ended its longstanding embargo on marijuana by giving its first-ever approval to a CBD product. The solution is called Epidiolex, and is recommended for two rare forms of childhood epilepsy. On Thursday, in an equally unprecedented move, the Drug Enforcement Agency assigned Epidiolex to its lowest-risk Schedule 5 category, alongside the likes of Lomotil, Lyrica and Robitussin.
But that probably won't do Cobbs much good, says NORML's Armentano.
“I do agree the language of the executive order doesn't seem to make much sense, it seems to contradict itself,” he said. “I think it's also interesting that it says at the end 'does not mean the use of a controlled substance pursuant to a valid prescription or other uses authorized by law.' I can't for the life of me imagine what those 'other uses authorized by law' could possibly be.
“I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a judge, but certainly I could see how a layperson would look at that language and think there's wiggle room here — it's written as if to imply there is. Unfortunately, the issue here is, it doesn't appear as if (Cobbs) has a valid prescription. And in most states, even if those states authorize medical marijuana, even the use of CBD, the entity that's writing the prescription cannot be the entity that's also filling it. That's a total no-no.”
Among the many Congressional bills being touted to mitigate marijuana's erroneously imposed 48-year-old Schedule 1 quarantine, the “Fairness in Federal Drug Testing Under State Laws Act” — introduced in August by U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist — would most benefit Americans like Henry Cobbs.
As the Herald-Tribune reported last month in its “Warriors Rise Up” project, veteran suicide rates are soaring, claiming more than 75,000 lives from 2005-2015, and many survivors have pleaded in vain for access to medical marijuana. Passage of H.R. 6589 would allow more than 2 million U.S. civil servants and another 1.4 million military personnel to legally use marijuana for pain relief.
Linguist, intelligence officer
Cobbs, now paying the price for crossing the Schedule 1 line, enjoyed a distinguished career in the military. Trained as a Chinese Mandarin linguist eavesdropping on enemy chatter in Southeast Asia, he was also an air intelligence officer with the 18th Tactical Fighter Wing in Okinawa, as well an air targets intelligence officer and sensor operations detachment commander in Thailand.
After leaving the military in 1982, Cobbs pursued an educational track in the civilian sector. One of those jobs was a five-year stint in Riyadh, where he was an information and instructional systems advisor for the Saudi Royal Air Force.
Nine years ago, Cobbs was hired by AFSOS, which was formed in 1967 in response to unconventional warfare unfolding in Vietnam. “As USAFSOS expands to meet an increasing demand for the 'thinking warrior,' the number of off-station courses (both formal courses and courses tailored to unit needs) has increased,” states the school's website. “The use of distance-learning technologies is growing to expand course availability. Video tele-instruction and web-based courses are becoming increasingly important in reaching USAFSOS' students.” Supervising the conversion of those courses to digital formatting was Cobbs' job.
In 2016, the Kentucky native was diagnosed for prostate cancer. Cobbs was preparing to endure radiation and chemotherapy when a doctor suggested alternative treatment. It involved dietary supplements incorporating citrus ingredients, non-psychoactive mushrooms and CBD. Cobbs' cancer is now in remission.
This year, Cobbs, who brought a vape pen to work as part of his continuing daily regimen, tried reassuring a professional colleague who had received a prostate cancer verdict by sharing his own success with CBD therapy. A concerned coworker overheard the conversation and reported Cobbs' use of marijuana to management. However, at least two other colleagues support Cobb's position on CBD, but declined to go on record for fear of retaliation.
The next step for Cobbs is an appeal for a hearing before the Merit Systems Protection Board, which considers grievances lodged by federal employees for unfair termination. If they uphold AFSOS' punishment, he vows to press his attack on Schedule 1.
“The simple plain and bottom line is, if the POTUS was unaware (as evidenced by the language in para(graph) C of the EO that you 'cannot' have a prescription for Schedule 1 drugs, how reasonable is it to expect me to know?” Cobbs states in an email. “The very presence of the language in the para says someone thought a prescription was possible. Otherwise, why add confusion to the policy?
“I'll go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if I have to,” Cobbs adds. “I was only concerned with getting rid of my cancer, and the CBD worked. So to hell with the law.”
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