As a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former Navy SEAL, I was taught to lead from the front and to engage the enemy with the most effective tools at my disposal. Today, many of Texas’ 1.7 million veterans are waging a daily battle with the physical and mental wounds that are a result of their military service. This fight should be waged with every tool at their disposal. Cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, must be one of those tools for Texas veterans.
Upward of 20 percent of the 2.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will experience post-traumatic stress or depression, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Forty percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members have known at least one post-9/11 veteran who committed suicide, while 31 percent have thought about taking their own life. If the evolving medical history of Vietnam veterans is any guide, the internal and external wounds of post-9/11 veterans will continue to emerge for decades.
The VA — in Texas or any other state — is not equipped to comprehensively combat the complexity of every veteran’s mental and physical wounds, leaving them to cope with limited and inadequate treatment options. But driven by the same fighting spirit that compelled them to answer their country’s call at a time of war, veterans are increasingly taking control of their health challenges. One of the most effective treatment tools they are choosing is medical marijuana.
Now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is recognized by experts such as the American College of Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association as a common-sense, safer alternative to many legal treatments. A national Harris Poll survey conducted in May found that over 80 percent of Americans favor general legalization of medical marijuana.
Over the past year I have been talking to veterans in personal meetings and focus groups, and they attest to medical marijuana’s efficacy as an effective component of their treatment. The story of Zach (not his real name), a Texan and Iraq combat veteran, represents one of the most common narratives I’ve heard. “After multiple surgeries for wounds sustained downrange, I was prescribed narcotic painkillers,” he told me. “As I developed chronic pain, the VA just prescribed more, and heavier, painkillers. I felt like a zombie and was becoming increasingly depressed.”
The VA diagnosed Zach, a former Marine Corps sergeant and college football player, with post-traumatic stress, and piled multiple psychotropic drugs on top of the narcotics. Zach’s life quickly spiraled out of control under the influence of the drugs; he was on the brink of suicide, at risk of becoming a tragic statistic. Through a fellow veteran, Zach tried marijuana. It became his path to quit the “cocktail” of VA-prescribed drugs, recover from depression and reconnect with his friends and family. Zach will tell you, in his soft, East Texan drawl, “Marijuana absolutely saved my life.”
Although Zach’s story is one of redemption, unfortunately the stories don’t usually end there. They are most often followed by a litany of complications that veterans face when choosing to take control of their health challenges through medical marijuana, spanning employment, cost, treatment, and benefit problems.
Legislation has not kept pace with Zach, nor has it kept up with expert or public opinion. The Texas Legislature took a historic step forward this spring when 10 marijuana reform bills were filed. Unfortunately, the one bill that was ultimately delivered to Gov. Greg Abbott only legalized cannabidiol oils for certain epilepsy patients. This leaves Texas veterans in a position to be treated as criminals if they turn to medical marijuana. First-time possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, or both. Consequently, veterans are moving to states that have progressive marijuana policies, such as Colorado, Washington and Alaska. With a history steeped in respecting, supporting and caring for veterans, it’s disappointing that Texas has not stepped forward.
By investing in education, advocacy, research and direct services, my new organization, the Veterans Cannabis Project, is committed to ensuring that veterans have access to the resources required to make smart, responsible and informed choices about cannabis. Medical marijuana in Texas and in every state should be a legal and supported option as veterans strive to live a full and engaged life for themselves, their families and their community.
Nick Etten, an Austin resident, is the founder of the Veterans Cannabis Project. Etten is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Navy SEAL. Visit VCP online at vetscp.org. Follow VCP on Twitter @VetCannabisProj.