Making Cannabis Accessible to Veterans

By Bill Ferguson and Kamal S. Kalsi

Following President Trump’s rollout of his administration’s policy response to the opioid crisis, it has become clear that the president would rather waste federal resources trying to execute drug dealers than allow Americans the option to use medical cannabis.

In his speech in New Hampshire, the president mentioned a terminally ill patient’s “right to try” experimental medications that can enhance quality of life, but ignored the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s own grudging admission that cannabis use is linked to health improvements in people suffering a range of diseases, from cancer to AIDS.

Trump called on Congress to amend a Medicaid regulation that restricts funding to certain types of treatment programs, while failing to address the numerous studies linking cannabis access to decreases in opioid abuse and overdose fatalities. This is darkly ironic considering the administration’s numerous attempts to gut Medicaid, including a proposed $237 billion cut to the program in the 2019 budget request.

The opioid epidemic is a public health emergency that the Centers for Disease Control estimates killed 42,000 people in 2016, with a recent report indicating that overdoses rose 30 percent between July 2016 and September 2017. The president’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated that the total cost of the crisis, on the low end, has been $300 billion to date.

The use of cannabis as an “exit drug” for people dealing with drug use disorders is supported by a review of existing research, as is its efficacy in chronic pain management — but the White House continues to ignore the role cannabis must play in ending this epidemic.

The proper regulation and research of cannabis — steadfastly ignored or dismissed by various leaders in the White House, the statehouse, the boardroom and the hospital room — is an existential issue. There is nothing abstract about millions of Americans being denied effective medicine while simultaneously being vulnerable to criminal sanction and arrest if they choose to save their own lives or the life of a loved one. It is strikingly perverse public policy to force patients to choose between legal drugs with established track records of misuse, abuse and overdose, and illegal drugs like cannabis that possess a tiny fraction of the risk and a great deal of potential benefit.

This dichotomy is all too familiar for U.S. military veterans. As a community, we have suffered — and continue to suffer — both chronic and acute injuries from the physical, environmental and psychic harms we have been exposed to: Agent Orange, Gulf War syndrome, burn pits, depleted uranium, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries … and the list goes on. Many of our brothers and sisters struggle under a tremendous burden imposed by their injuries, a burden that is often exacerbated by the treatment they receive.

Thousands of veterans have experienced how the “combat cocktail” of medications they were prescribed to help manage their war-related injuries and conditions often carried significant and often debilitating side-effects. The result of this widespread polypharmacy use within the veteran community — whose members are often taking some combination of prescription narcotic opioids, tranquilizers, sedatives, stimulants and antipsychotics — has ended many lives early through overdoses and suicide.

Desperation — borne of medication-induced or amplified effects like depression, sleep disruption and sexual dysfunction — is often the driving force behind many veterans’ first-time use of cannabis. The relief they experience with cannabis use, however, is profound: the ability to sleep, or relax, or manage pain without pills, or connect with their family for the first time in months and years. These are all necessary components to the healing process. In medical cannabis, they have found something that tens of thousands of dollars a year of powerful prescription medications could not provide.

To address the immediate, existential need the veteran community has for cannabis access, and in recognition of the same need in millions of other patients across the country, community advocates are stepping up to help build the national alliance necessary to end cannabis prohibition.

Doctors for Cannabis Regulation is the only national physicians’ association dedicated to the legalization and effective regulation of marijuana in the United States, and it works to present the grounded research and observations of medical professionals to lawmakers and citizens. The Veterans Cannabis Coalition is dedicated to bringing medical cannabis access to veterans across the country, without fear of criminalization or stigma, by way of ending cannabis prohibition federally. We have recognized an opportunity to continue to serve our nation by challenging our institutions and elected representatives to live up to their refrains of “supporting the troops” by correcting a decades-long injustice that has hurt millions of Americans and thousands of communities.

We are in a political moment where Congress and the White House can do right thing by veterans and by patients across the country. Reschedule cannabis, research it, regulate it and make it accessible — this is the message we are carrying in the halls of the capitol and to the American people. We must come together to make the compassionate, common-sense choice to end cannabis prohibition now.

About the Authors

Kamal Kalsi is a medical doctor, a veteran of the Afghanistan War, and a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council, and a member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. Bill Ferguson is a former Army infantry soldier, veteran of the Iraq War, and co-founder of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition. Views expressed are their own.

Advocacy, EducationEric G