When Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation this month to restrain the federal government from interfering with state-legal cannabis consumption and commerce, they galvanized an all-too-rare level of bipartisan, bicameral support. Notably missing from the voices of support for their bill are America’s veterans.
While the States Act would provide vital protection from federal criminal prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act, it would do nothing to provide legal protection or access to medical cannabis for the nine million veterans who rely on the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).
VHA would still be required under this bill to treat cannabis as a schedule 1 substance — a classification that bars veterans from pursuing medical cannabis as a treatment option under the care of VHA physicians, and potentially places them at risk of losing hard-earned benefits.
This is no small issue. America’s veterans are in crisis. On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Veterans suffer chronic severe pain at rates roughly 40 percent higher than civilians according to the National Institutes of Health, helping to explain why the opioid crisis has hit veterans at a rate two times the national average.
And according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), upwards of 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience post-traumatic stress or depression.
While VHA physicians have been quick to prescribe powerful and dangerous drug cocktails (opiates and benzodiazepines) in response to these and other service-related conditions, how could the federal government continue to deny veterans legal access to medical cannabis as a demonstrably safer alternative treatment option? It’s an option veterans should not only have, it’s one they clearly want.
In October, an American Legion survey of veteran households found that 82 percent want to have cannabis as a federally-legal treatment, and 83 percent believe the federal government should legalize medical cannabis. An overwhelming 92 percent of those surveyed support research into medical cannabis — research the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would be uniquely qualified to conduct but would remain nearly impossible to do under the States Act.
As a candidate, Donald Trump ran on a pledge to improve health care for America’s veterans and to support medical cannabis. Those two commitments were among the reasons why he won the veteran vote by a 2-to-1 margin over Hillary Clinton.
As president, Trump’s efforts to reform the VA have been laudable, but veterans now need his leadership to remove the barriers preventing them from legal access to medical cannabis.
Republican party leaders unfortunately remain reluctant to advance cannabis reform legislation, choosing instead to perpetuate debunked “Reefer Madness” propaganda and ignore science, patient outcomes and the wishes of veteran voters across the country.
Just last week, the House Rules Committee prevented three veteran-specific medical cannabis amendments from going to the House floor for a vote, despite pleas from fellow Republican members.
President Trump can and must break this political logjam by persuading Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to act. With midterm elections around the corner and control of Congress potentially at stake, Republicans can’t afford to lose votes in close races because party leaders choose to turn their backs to the urgent health needs and clear wishes of our veterans.
Being politically conservative doesn’t have to mean being reluctant to change. An increasing number of Republicans get that, and there are encouraging signs that even staunch cannabis opponents are coming around on federal reform. The most prominent example is former Republican House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
He recently announced his evolution from being “unalterably opposed” to cannabis legalization to saying “I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities.”
As a Republican, I was pleased to see President Trump side with states in their untenable legal conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act by voicing his support for the States Act within 24 hours of the bill’s introduction. But as a veteran, I remain deeply disappointed by the lack of political will and progress in Washington to make medical cannabis a legal treatment option for our former service members.
Veterans have been pleading with members of Congress and Trump administration officials to enact a law that will give them legal access. It’s time for Republican leaders to acknowledge that federal cannabis reform is inevitable and it’s time for comprehensive action. We are counting on President Trump and Congress to deliver a final cannabis reform deal that not only respects ‘state’s rights,’ but respects veterans as well.
Nick Etten is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, a former Navy SEAL officer, and the founder of Veterans Cannabis Project.