BY TAYLOR ENGLE | Photo by Syndey Rae
With cannabis legal in some form in almost every state in the country, the public stigma that surrounded marijuana for so many decades is rapidly disappearing. However, its illegal federal status means many people still have difficulty getting access to the plant, which has posed a massive problem for our country’s military veteran community.
Today, the VA continues to reject cannabis as a legitimate medicine for PTSD. Even in states where cannabis is legal, Veterans Affairs providers cannot prescribe it. Advocates report that the disconnect between local and federal laws continues to create uncertainty within the veteran community regarding medical and recreational use—with the risk of potentially losing access to other medications and the greater risk of being subject to federal prosecution, even under compliance with local state law.
Fortunately, we're currently witnessing a rapidly growing bipartisan effort among congressional lawmakers with the reintroduction of bills that would federally legalize medical cannabis for veterans, like the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act.
But the challenges for military vets remain multi-faceted. The available legal industry's restrictions and inflations are making it so that veterans who have legal access to the plant still cannot afford to purchase it, most notably vets on 100% disability who are still required to pay out of pocket for state-level medical marijuana programs.
Cannabis has a rich history of being physically, psychologically, and spiritually beneficial to people all over the world. Utilized across a variety of cultures for centuries, the plant is now medically recognized for treating ailments like cancer, insomnia, depression/anxiety, skin conditions, and so much more.
While just about anyone can find a way for cannabis to work for them, it’s been specifically proven to be effective for treating symptoms of PTSD and chronic pain, which are both incredibly common within the veteran community.
Despite these potential benefits, cannabis remains incredibly difficult for veterans to access, and completely off limits for active military personnel.
“When veterans turn to the VA for help, many are never even told that cannabis might help them,” said Michael Krawitz, U.S. Air Force veteran and Executive Director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. “They may know it exists, but have no idea what role it could play in their healthcare with things like PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, nausea from chemo… but it would never be mentioned or offered to them.”
Krawitz became aware of cannabis’s healing properties through his own experience with the plant. The veteran suffered an automobile accident during his time in the service that left him permanently disabled.
“My accident happened in the ’80s,” Krawitz said. “This was before California’s Prop 64, when the average person started to learn a little more about medical marijuana, but at the time of my accident, it wasn’t widely known.”
Krawitz went through a meat grinder of therapies, surgeries, and treatments, but nothing was successfully easing his chronic pain and discomfort—until he took a life-changing trip to Europe for a few months.
The veteran had decided to see a doctor as soon as he arrived in Europe to make sure that someone local was aware of his condition—a local point of contact in case he were to get hurt. Instead, he fell right into the country’s medical marijuana program.
“I didn’t even know they had one,” Krawitz said. “I was talking to this doctor who suggested I try and replace some of the opioid medications I was on at the time, with cannabis. This was in complete contrast to the VA.”
Krawitz used cannabis on and off over time, eventually realizing how much it was helping him and improving his quality of life. His discovery led him to advocacy—if cannabis could help him so drastically, surely it could do the same for veterans and other patients all over the world.
Krawitz’s is just one story of many: thanks to veterans like himself who’ve dedicated their lives to advocating for cannabis rights, several other men and women have been able to get the help they need instead of becoming dependent on VA-prescribed pills and drugs. However, veterans are far from having equal and fair access to the plant that makes such a positive difference in their lives.
“I call it medical geography,” said Navy Veteran Al Byrne, who co-founded the VMCA and Patients Out of Time. “For veterans, cannabis is medicine if you live in Colorado, but if you live in Kansas, it isn’t. That’s immoral, medically unethical, and completely crazy.”
Byrne has witnessed several firsthand accounts of cannabis’s success over the years. From his father suffering from liver cancer to testimonials from the patients of his wife Mary Lynne Mathre, RN, who co-founded Patients Out of Time with Byrne, the veteran has been a passionate advocate for the plant.
“What we’re talking about is denying this kind of treatment, which is highly effective, to wounded veterans,” Byrne said. “Making them take a huge risk by going to the black market, instead of treating them like veterans.”
Byrne and Krawitz work together in their cannabis advocacy outside of the organizations, hosting veteran interviews on their radio shows Veterans Voices and Time 4 Hemp to raise more awareness and spark conversation around cannabis use within the military.
“I’ve probably interviewed around 500 veterans now, and I’ve never heard a single one say anything about cannabis that wasn’t positive,” Byrne said. “One of the most common questions I’ll ask is, ‘Does it help you sleep?’ And the response is always: ‘Oh, yeah! It’s the first time I’ve slept eight hours in a row since Vietnam. We’re talking 50 years for some of these people, without a full night of uninterrupted sleep.”
From mass surveys Byrne and Mathre have conducted on cannabis use to clinical studies and personal accounts from thousands of veterans, the couple has deduced that cannabis prohibition is completely senseless and immoral.
Byrne and Krawitz aren’t the only veterans who feel this way—people all over the world, both within the veteran community and otherwise, are standing up for equal access to cannabis. And while many think pieces will have you believe the problem here ultimately lies with the VA, this is only a small piece of a much larger issue.
“As you continue to write about this, you’re going to keep hearing that we don’t have enough research on cannabis to justify its benefits,” Byrne said with exasperation. “There has been research done all over the world. The fourth largest drug company in the world is a cannabis distributor on the European continent. But ethnocentrism overcomes everyone in America. All of these other countries have all of this scientific evidence, but because we haven’t studied it enough ourselves, it must be wrong. It’s uneducated, unethical, and ridiculous.”
“The legal cannabis market [in the U.S.] is systemically flawed,” said Sean Kiernan, CEO of Weed For Warriors. “And this was by design. Regardless of gender, race, vet or non-vet, there’s an access issue.” Meanwhile, it's reported that 80% of today’s cannabis market still lies with the illicit market. “Look at alcohol prohibition. There’s a reason it didn’t work. So how is 'prohibition lite' supposed to work?” Kiernan said.
Vulnerable communities who need access to medical cannabis the most continue to struggle. And advocates have noted that patients are rarely, if ever, considered in the process. "The patients are never at these table discussions," Kiernan said. These big corporate cannabis companies have instituted a huge systemic problem here. It’s this perverse, classist view where rich people have access and poor people and veterans do not. And that’s hard for people to stomach—seeing industries hug veterans in public, but behind the scenes, they’re just pushing this dollar monopoly model for their own benefit.”
Corporate agendas continue to dominate the legal industry, leaving legacy operators, veterans, and other longtime consumers behind to pick up the pieces. Cannabis is legal, and yet the vast majority of the population can’t afford to participate in the supply chain or as consumers.
“Take a veteran on 100% disability,” Kiernan said. “If you compare the financial support they receive from the government and the average pierce of an eighth of weed in California, it’s going to cost that veteran at least 40% of their income.”
These infuriating setbacks have inspired veteran activists like Kiernan to continue fighting back until their voices are heard. While Congress’s MORE Act seeks to decriminalize cannabis on a national level, Kiernan and his peers recognize what this will actually mean for the industry: more taxation, and other serious unintended consequences to access.
Kiernan penned a letter to Congress arguing this case in an attempt to defend affordable and equal access to weed.
“We have legalized cannabis for the privileged and we have kept illicit cannabis as the only option for too many, especially disabled veterans seeking an alternative to deadly pharmaceuticals like opioids,” Kiernan wrote.
Thanks to these veteran activists and other activists throughout the cannabis community, equal access to cannabis is quickly becoming a bipartisan issue, attracting the attention of lawmakers who support cannabis research and education. However, many consumers remain rightfully wary for the future of the industry.
Nick Martin is the Co-Founder and Director of HeroGrown Foundation, a nonprofit that has been providing veterans with access to cannabis since 2011.
“For cannabis to be a viable alternative to free drugs from the VA, it must be free or very affordable,” Martin said. “Most disabled veterans live on a limited budget, and legal cannabis simply isn’t affordable enough to replace free prescriptions.”
Martin believes cannabis should be legal for all adults in the U.S., including veterans, active duty military personnel, law enforcement, and first responders. These men and women are most likely to be prescribed highly addictive opioids and sleeping pills. In the same vein, they are most likely to be discharged and disgraced for using a natural plant to safely combat their issues.
A major part of HeroGrown’s mission is to stop employers and the federal government from screening people for off-duty cannabis use, especially within the military. As much as this issue continues to persist, activists like Krawitz, Byrne, Kiernan, and Martin keep their focus on the patient community, and remain hopeful that reform is on the way.
“You’ll find one cannabis organization in the world that starts with the word ‘patient’, and that’s Patients Out of Time,” Byrne said. “When we started this work, it was financially and legally dangerous. We were constantly in jeopardy. Now everyone gets to say, look at me smoking a bowl, aren’t I special? And I’m glad they can do that. Patients are glad, veterans are glad—we’re all glad.”
Cannabis stigmatization is definitely on its way out the door, and we have tireless advocates like these to thank, but equal access and an ethical industry remains as elusive as ever. This is exactly why education and increased awareness are so vital for reform.
“We are confident that full legalization is on the horizon, including for active duty military personnel,” Martin said. “I’m proud that HeroGrown Foundation has been at the tip of the spear in the fight to liberate cannabis for the last decade. Millions of Americans still have antiquated views of cannabis, but we have found that veterans are in a unique position to educate and win hearts and minds in these largely conservative areas.”
Taylor Engle is a freelance writer, editor, and public relations/marketing specialist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her free time, she loves to cook, do yoga, and hang out with her cat.