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Make veterans a part of the discussions and research around cannabis

Make veterans a part of the discussions and research around cannabis
Marijuana plants grow in the flowering room at Illinois Grown Medicine, a medical marijuana cultivation center in Elk Grove Village, on May 6. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

A movement is afoot to expand cannabis research in the United States, and it’s being led by a formidable demographic — American veterans.

The call is being taken up by grassroots organizations across the country, as well as by some of the most powerful voices in veteran advocacy. It’s time for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans and Congress to listen to them.

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The American Legion, an organization with more than 2.4 million veteran members, has emerged as one of the nation’s most vocal proponents of expanding cannabis research. In 2017, the legion called on the federal government to allow veterans affairs medical providers to discuss cannabis as a treatment option for veterans living in states with medical cannabis programs. The legion has also published the results of a survey that canvassed veteran households across the country on the topic of medical cannabis. Of those surveyed, 92% support expanding medical cannabis research and 83% of participants think cannabis should be a federally legal treatment option. Adding force to the message is the fact that nearly 80% of these veteran respondents do not use cannabis to treat a medical condition. In other words, veterans want to expand cannabis research and access not for themselves, but for their fellow veterans in need.

Jim Champion, an Army veteran with multiple sclerosis, helped lead the fight for medical marijuana in Illinois. He is wheelchair bound and says he smokes or eats marijuana to relieve pain and get off other meds.
Jim Champion, an Army veteran with multiple sclerosis, helped lead the fight for medical marijuana in Illinois. He is wheelchair bound and says he smokes or eats marijuana to relieve pain and get off other meds. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Veterans suffer opioid overdoses at twice the rate of non-veterans. More than 300,000 combat veterans have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury in the last four years alone. And more than 20 veterans commit suicide every single day. The time has come to declare these issues a crisis — a crisis that is debilitating and killing the women and men who volunteered to defend our freedom.

At present, no fewer than seven drafts of veteran-related cannabis legislation are swirling around Capitol Hill. It’s arguably the most widely-supported, non-partisan issue facing Congress today. Lawmakers are pushing several pieces of legislation that will force the VA to clarify where it stands on medical cannabis for the benefit of veterans who want to use the drug. With this support in Congress, and with several pieces of legislation swirling around Capitol Hill, why has this effort seemingly gone nowhere? Why won’t the VA at least research it?

There is a growing movement that supports cannabis as a medication for chronic pain and a treatment for opioid addiction. More research is needed. But simply acknowledging the need for research with no action behind it is not only disingenuous, it disregards the explicit will of more than 90% of veterans. It is estimated that nearly 1 million of America’s 23 million veterans use medical cannabis to treat health conditions like chronic pain, post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. And they do so without the benefit of VA-supplied cannabis research data to rely upon. We need to help them. We need to act. It is time to remove the stigma for cannabis use.

Fast approaching is the day when voters will equate support for cannabis research with support for veteran health. It is time to replace the hackneyed “war on drugs” rhetoric with a federally endorsed, data driven exploration of cannabis as medicine. It begins with more research, and time is of the essence. Act now.

John Schofield

The writer is the director of veterans outreach for Mission Dispensaries. He served for 21 years in the U.S. Navy, in various leadership positions at the Pentagon and is a former director of communications at the United States Naval Academy.

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