As criminal justice and cannabis reform continue to sweep the nation, it is important to remember that some of the most vocal and influential frontline advocates of medical marijuana at the local, state, and federal levels have been the growing number of our nation’s military veterans who have discovered the many beneficial uses of the cannabis plant and then decided to create a platform to educate others about it in order to enact change.
The sad truth is, as long as the cannabis plant remains on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act it remains federally illegal and, therefore, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has avoided addressing the issue or offering any comprehensive plan to update their own archaic ideologies about medical marijuana for veterans.
What this means is that our nation’s active-duty service members and military veterans quite literally do not have equal rights when it comes to legal cannabis compared to their friends, family, and neighbors who reside in cannabis-friendly states. In California, for example, a military veteran’s dog can get access to legal medical marijuana but that same veteran could face negative repercussions from their VA doctor by making use of the plant for themselves.
Instead, many veterans are being overprescribed dangerous combinations of pharmaceutical drugs. Some are meant to treat their physical pain, others are supposed to help with anxiety or PTSD, then even more pills are added to help combat the negative side effects of the rest.
The resulting bouts of depression that all too often serve as a silent side effect can become too much to bear for some military veterans and as we all know, an average of more than 20 of our nation’s bravest take their own lives every single day in this country.
Just this week, new research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology provided clear evidence that “cannabis use may contribute to reducing the association between post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depressive and suicidal states.” Still, the VA continues to actively lobby against even just researching the potential efficacy of medical marijuana for veterans.
“CANNABIS SAVED MY LIFE”
Following 11 years in the United States Marine Corps, including two combat tours, Pennsylvania native Mike Whiter found himself medically discharged from the Marines and squarely in the middle of a difficult transition back to civilian life. Just as Goepel was telling us, Whiter was prescribed a slew of medication from VA doctors, which in hindsight, he now realizes only clouded his ability to cope with the changes occurring at that time.
In 2006, Whiter tried to take his own life. He went to bed one night hoping not to wake up the next morning… but he did wake up. Unfortunately, that was not the wakeup call he needed and he would make two more attempts over the next five years. Anytime he went to the VA for help, he left with more prescriptions, more pills, more problems.
In 2012, an episode of the television program Weed Wars showcased a segment on military vets and how they find relief with cannabis. This motivated Whiter to spark some up for himself to see if it might offer him that same relief… and it did. Cannabis use allowed Whiter to push past the negative thoughts that had been plaguing him for years and that, he says, is key. No longer did he let his past digressions or misgivings define him and with that new understanding came a reinvigorated will to live.
“I’m a fighter,” Mike says, “but I was lost and I had nothing to fight for. I decided to make cannabis, specifically the legalization of cannabis so that veterans could gain safe access, my purpose. I made it my purpose to educate veterans with what I’d learned about the plant and to help them get off of the pills that were holding them back.”
Inspired, Whiter became an outspoken advocate for the cannabis plant and, along with some like-minded heads in Pennsylvania, they were able to put Philadelphia on the map as the largest city in the U.S. to decriminalize low-level cannabis possession.
Whiter tells us, “When I found cannabis and met other activists, it gave me that sense of brotherhood I’d been missing from my time in the Marines. It also gave me a sense of purpose I thought I’d lost after getting out of the Marines.”
WAR WITHIN A BREATH FOR MILITARY VETERANS
Facing a wave of ignorance from our federal, state, and local lawmakers on cannabis reform, our friend Eric Goepel and his organization Veterans Cannabis Coalition make their stand. A veteran of the U.S. Army himself, Goepel co-founded VCC along with fellow vet and advocate Bill Ferguson with the mission of ending cannabis prohibition and ensuring that the VA finally begins to research and develop cannabis-based medications.
“Cannabis prohibition is killing Americans, including veterans, every day,” says Goepel. “More than 100,000 veterans have died by suicide and overdose since 9/11, a horrific statistic that exists despite billions of dollars and almost two decades of reduction programs and interventions. Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have spent years discussing solutions, yet have stayed silent on the role of prescribed pharmaceuticals in driving this national tragedy. Meanwhile, more than 2 million veterans have self-reported using cannabis to manage their health issues and as a safer, more effective alternative to the ‘combat cocktail’ of painkillers, antidepressants, sedatives, and stimulants. There are now dozens of published news articles over the last several years featuring veterans telling the same story: they were hurting, the pills did not work and often made their conditions worse, but cannabis was able to provide relief.”
Goepel’s work with VCC takes him to the highest levels of our government to lobby on behalf of not only military veterans, but on behalf of all cannabis consumers – remember, the vets are blazing the trail for the rest of us. He has seen firsthand how frustrating it can be to change the system from the inside, but he continues the mission.
“Every level of government has been empowered to deny us access to a medicinal plant, dismiss the lived reality of millions of patients who have benefitted from cannabis, and criminalize and brutalize generations of people for exercising their basic human rights of self-care and bodily autonomy,” Goepel explained in our last discussion. “Prohibition,” he says, “at its twisted root, is an institution built on racism and ignorance that will be viewed as one of the greatest failures of governance and compassion in our history as a nation. Veterans are among the many people across this country who have stood up against this injustice.”
Veterans Walk & Talk is a grassroots organization founded by U.S. Army veteran Colin Wells with the mission of creating social events where veterans who happen to find a benefit in cannabis can come and feel safe around others who can relate to the struggles that many vets must battle through. As the name of the organization implies, these events typically take the form of an early morning weekend hike or even an occasional campout and VWAT chapters are sprouting up across the country inspired by Wells’ weekly gatherings up and down the state of California.
We have been on these hikes with Colin and his crew and seeing veterans lean on each other for emotional support, educate each other on how to get the most out of their benefits, and of course, sparking up together brought a tear to this writer’s eye on more than one occasion, but we asked Wells for his firsthand take on how cannabis has helped so many vets in so many ways.
“Since founding Veterans Walk and Talk in late 2016, I have seen the power of cannabis work miracles,” he told us. “Even the act of discussing it with other veterans who benefit from cannabis is therapeutic. Marriages saved, combat vets brought back to their children, etc. It never ceases to amaze. Cannabis is the great unifier our country needs and every veteran we help is another leader who will go sing it from the mountaintops… literally with our group,” Colin says with a smile.
CHARLIE MIKE – CONTINUE THE MISSION
This Veterans Day, make a pledge to yourself that you will support our nation’s veterans and their right to safe access to legal cannabis every day. It is easier than ever to seek out information about upcoming pieces of proposed legislation that can help their cause – so do it, and fight for them! Pester politicians and demand that our veterans no longer be treated as second class citizens by the government they dutifully served.
The United States military has a long history with cannabis use, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. In World War I, troops in the American Expeditionary Force were given Indica tablets to help with aches, pains, cramps, and insomnia. Of course, that is right around the time that everything changed for cannabis in our society as the propaganda against the plant ramped up into decades of outright prohibition, a darkness we are just now emerging from.
Unfortunately, our federal government and the Department of Veterans Affairs seem to prefer operating in those shadows but with military veterans like Goepel, Wells, Whiter, and so many others shining such an intense light on the subject it is only a matter of time before they accomplish their missions and that’s a good thing for all of us.
DID YOU KNOW?
Every time you purchase a SkyBlue Vapor product, 3% of the proceeds are donated to pro-cannabis charities fighting for legalization and your right to grow your own. Also of note, ALL military veterans, as well as medical cannabis patients, are eligible for an additional discount in our effort to provide necessary products to those in need. Just send an email to [email protected] with a photo of your Military or Medical ID and SBV will send a coupon back to you!