As a historic House-passed cannabis research bill makes its way to President Joe Biden’s desk after surviving a Senate vote, questions remain regarding its impact on the future of federal legalization.
One group whose concerns get washed in the stalemates and political acrobatics: former service members facing the specter of stigma and barriers to accessing safe medicine.
Politicians routinely wax poetic about advocating for the interests of 18 million veterans in the U.S., though the platitudes tend to stop at medical cannabis.
While veterans cannot be denied benefits because of marijuana use, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) does not permit doctors in its network to recommend cannabis or help patients apply to be a part of a state medical program.
Advocates, however, say that the stakes are too high to set aside what has been anecdotally shown as a more effective treatment option for the physical and mental trauma service members carry home from war.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic, often debilitating ailments left poorly treated cannot only lead to severe substance abuse but, in worst-case scenarios, violence and suicide.
In a joint study with University of Alabama and Duke University, officials from America’s Warrior Partnership reviewed census death data between 2014-2018 across eight states and found thousands of cases of suspected or confirmed suicides not included in federal calculations.
The study revealed that veterans take their lives at a rate 2.4 times higher than official VA reports show, with at least 44 former service members dying every day by suicide or overdose.
Wanda James, a U.S. Navy veteran and the first African American woman to open a dispensary in the country, said that the idea that civilians (politicians) “stand in the way of whatever a vet wants to feel better, it’s insulting to me.”
“It’s so funny to me when I hear certain politicians say, ‘Well, we haven’t studied cannabis, and we don’t know what the effects of cannabis will be on the vets and what if it makes them worse.’”
She continued, “That always brings me pause … and I stare at them in their eye and say, ‘You know what really fucks up service members? War. War really fucks up service members beyond belief.'”
U.S. Coast Guard veteran Amber Senter is the founder and CEO of MAKR House and heads Supernova Women, a nonprofit that works to create opportunities for Black and brown people in the cannabis industry. “Good ol’ racism” exacerbates the stigma around cannabis that still exists within the VA health care system, she said.
She spoke about her experience being a queer Black woman, a group who tends to see more uncomfortable bias from doctors that question the validity of their own health concerns – something Senter has faced over the years during her battle with lupus.
“I was on a chemotherapy drug about three, four years ago, and it made me really sick,” she said. “I was sent to a GI doctor because of it, and he tried to tell me, and showed me articles, that it was my cannabis use that was causing it, not the chemotherapy that I was on, which is absolutely ridiculous.”
She continued, “I got so angry. I got up and walked out. And I’ve never done that.”
In another instance, Senter was hospitalized in the North Las Vegas VA hospital for a week after falling ill on the way to a conference. Hospital staff told her that she would have to phone a friend to come pick up her bag of THC capsules, “otherwise they were going to dispose of it,” Senter said.
Doctors asked her if she used cannabis.
“I’m like…yeah,” she said. “They asked, ‘Well, how often?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, every day?’ and they said, “Well, we’re just not going to put that down.’”
“I was like, ‘What do you mean? Isn’t weed legal here in Nevada? What do you mean you’re not going to write it down? What’s wrong with that?’… So, it’s still a very big problem within the VA medical health care system,” she said.
Senter said these issues arose when she first started going to the VA. She recalled her very first primary care physician, who she described as “a really crappy doctor.”
“Every time I would come in, she would drug test me. Like a whole panel of drug tests and always blamed everything on my cannabis use,” she said. “Because of course, that was the only thing that I tested positive for. I have serious lupus complications; some pretty significant issues. You know, you can’t tell me that’s due to me smoking cannabis.”
Senter remembered how her late father, a U.S. veteran himself, dealt with the same biases in how doctors treat Black people.
“He would always complain about his doctors. He didn’t smoke weed or anything, but they would accuse him of doing drugs. My dad did not do drugs.”
Senter ultimately found a more understanding set of doctors and specialists.
“I’ve gotten a very friendly set of doctors, but I think it’s because they’re all here in the Bay Area and they’re progressive, you know what I mean? But it seems that when I leave this area, I’m dealing with all of this, kind of, Reefer Madness craziness within the VA health care system.”
The Drug Approval System
Shane Pennington, an appellate lawyer focusing on regulatory litigation at Vicente Sederberg, noted how the pharmaceutical model used to approve drugs for market is not compatible with the realities surrounding cannabis flower.
“The fact that we’re in a scientific Dark Age on something that millions of Americans are using is immoral,” he said during a virtual roundtable with Hemp for Victory, a nonprofit that helps educate communities on the positive influence cannabis has on veterans.
Securing patent rights and other intellectual property incentivizes pharmaceutical companies to fund and pursue scientific research, he said. “Well, guess what? None of those incentives work for cannabis. It’s already on the market. No one’s going to pay to get market exclusivity that can’t possibly happen.”
He continued, “When you see people talking about that they’re going to open up research and ‘We’re going to move it to Schedule II.’ Sue Sisley wanted to to the research. We fought the DEA and won four times to get her to be able to have a license to grow and go do the research. There’s no money. No one’s paying her to do that research.
“There’s not a problem of people not being able to do it. The problem is money because the model is broken.”
Hemp for Victory founder Robert Head added, “How do you dismantle such a complex problem? Because the fact that this complex system is in place — it’s starting to seem like we are just fuel for the machine. As we kind of come in, the machine takes us, uses us, and discards us. We come in, machine takes us, uses us, discards us.”
Bryan Buckley is a U.S. Marine veteran and founder of Helmand Valley Growers Co. (HVGC), a cannabis company that donates 100% of its profits to fund research on the medical use of cannabis for veterans – specifically research carried by Buckley’s own Battle Brothers Foundation, which serves as HVGC’s 501(c)3 nonprofit arm.
The focus on research showing how cannabis use can help stave off veterans’ PTSD symptoms started after a 2016 trip to D.C. to lobby lawmakers on the hill.
“I said, ‘What would you guys need to get this into the VA system?’ And they said, ‘If you can get data (alongside) American doctors, you’ll have a really good argument.'”
Buckley eventually partnered with Israeli-American medical data and research company NiaMedic to develop a 90-day observational study alongside UCI Health, the clinical enterprise of the University of California, Irvine.
By 2021, the pitch gained approval from the national Independent Review Board, a committee that reviews the ethics of methods included in research proposals.
“I mean, we’re ready to go with the formulation and the treatment protocol. And we got a good stack of veterans. The hard part has been the financial part. California doesn’t really have the greatest margins for legal cannabis companies, so it’s been pretty slow-go. I mean, you’re pretty much just trying to keep the lights on each month. But we’re hoping to garner some more donations to our nonprofit. And once we can get that going, we’ll move relatively fast.”
Part of Buckley’s vision is to conduct the initial study before asking lawmakers to help him get permission for FDA trials, effectively owning the patent and intellectual property rights to the formulation and treatment protocol.
“We would own IP,” he said, “and the ultimate end state once we prove everything with the data, we would want to have our product at every VA pharmacy so doctors can prescribe to the veteran. They walk downstairs, get their prescription, and walk out the door free of charge.”
“I really do believe veterans will be the tip of the spear. We can look at Congress and say, ‘You guys sent us to war, why aren’t you trying to fix us?’ We know very much what is going on with the opioid crisis, and the VA is doing the best they can with what they have. But all they have are the traditional opiates, and veterans are just kind of tired of getting 15 pills that they have to take each day to kind of numb them out. I think that’s just a direct correlation to why you have such a high rate of suicide within veterans.”
On the disposition of the conservative platform when it comes to cannabis, Buckley pointed to the younger generation of veterans running for office, who he thinks is “very much more open to not just a cannabis conversation, but the psychedelic conversation as well.”
Head noted the double-dealing and lip service from politicians across the spectrum during the virtual roundtable, “I mean, when the PACT Act came across…that was infuriating. I remember calling Todd (Scattini, a U.S. Army veteran and cannabis strategist) talking about how mad I was that you played politics with these dudes that you sent to a war that we didn’t even need to go to. And then when you come back, you’re playing politics with their lives.”
James said she has heard the noise, the hypotheticals, and the empty promises for a long time.
“It just seems ridiculous to me that we are tying ourselves in knots trying to figure out how to do everything but legalize,” she said. “And I’m really growing tired of cowardly politicians that have their own agendas and their own prejudices and issues with cannabis, that they are not embracing full on legalization.”
She continued, “And so, the idea that when somebody comes back from war, with shrapnel in their bodies, missing limbs, burnt to the point of being deformed, losing their eyesight, losing their hearing, all the things that we go through when we’re in war…nobody comes back from war normal. And if you did, then you weren’t normal in the first place, because that’s an impossible thing to come back from.”