By Benjie Cooper
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Despite being a relatively young nation compared to much of the rest of the world, the United States of America has become a vast land of great diversity, rich culture, and endless opportunity. With tireless efforts from countless individuals, in just over two-hundred years the country has grown and established itself as a prominent figure on the world stage.
But a crucial factor in a nation’s survival, especially in its infancy, is its ability to defend itself from outside threats. While adept police forces are needed to appropriately deal with people inside the borders who might want to threaten lives and disturb law and order, a strong military is necessary to keep a country safe from foreign invaders.
The United States has one of the most significant active military forces in the world with nearly 800 bases in more than 70 countries and 1.3 million active servicemen and servicewomen providing protection to not only our own people but also to many who ask for help.
But for those who serve, this dedication to the protection of land and loved ones often comes with a heavy price.
When William Tecumseh Sherman told the Michigan Military Academy graduates that ‘war is hell’ in 1879, he was referring not only to the horrific and bloody battles that are a natural part of war, but also the aftermath.
“You don’t know the horrible aspects of war,” he told them, “I’ve been through two wars, and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies.” The effects of war can be lasting and severe in the lives of those who bear witness to its devastation firsthand.
But the years of service that are given by people in the military, and the hardships that they endure within should unquestionably be compensated for throughout their life thereafter. In the aftermath of trauma, many live with deep physical, emotional, and psychological wounds requiring access to medicine and treatment needed to ease pain and suffering.
While not explicitly confined to the military, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is something that, for veterans, can result from exposure to graphic violence, sexual harassment, and life-threatening situations experienced during their enlistment.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reports the percentage of soldiers experiencing PTSD from the Iraq and Afghanistan war to be 11-20% (297,000-540,000 soldiers), though the number is likely to be significantly higher when taking individuals with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) into account.
When veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, opioids, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, (SSRI) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI) are the typical drugs used as part of their treatment. A 2012 study showed that Iraq and Afghanistan vets were more than twice as likely to be prescribed opioids for their pain.
Opioids and antidepressants have an essential place and legitimate uses in the medical realm, but abuse and overuse can often yield disastrous results. These drugs can carry a range of dangerous side effects such as depression and suicide which can be present not only in their use, but also in the withdrawal from their use.
A 2016 report by the VA showed that in 2014, 20 veterans died by suicide each day, constituting 20% of all deaths by suicides that year. The agency also reports that veterans are at an increased risk for suicide, particularly among males.
The VA is a federal agency and must, therefore, adhere to national drug scheduling policies as established by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 when treating veterans. Though the growing trend of medical cannabis legalization continues to offer a proven safer option for those living with PTSD, it is still unable to gain a real foothold in the agency due to the restrictions that are in place.
Because cannabis remains a Schedule I narcotic, VA doctors are prohibited from prescribing or recommending it. Still, veterans are allowed to participate in state medicinal marijuana programs without it affecting their eligibility for VA benefits or access to their programs and services.
While veterans are allowed to use medicinal cannabis in accordance with state law, those who work for the VA are not permitted to do so as they are subject to drug testing as part of their terms of federal employment.
The VA encourages any veteran who does choose to incorporate medicinal cannabis as part of their treatment to discuss it regularly with their VA physician. All details that might be discussed regarding the patient’s marijuana use are kept completely confidential, as is the case with any other sensitive item of clinical information.
The United States is not a perfect nation, but those who voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way to serve this country should never be forgotten, whether they are still with us or not. A fallen soldier deserves every respect in their death, but those who are still alive and suffering, they are deserving of the nation’s constant attention and utmost care for their well-being.
Even as the number of states with medical cannabis laws breaches the halfway mark, and shows no sign of slowing, there are still many veterans who live in places where marijuana remains illegal. As the number of prohibitionist states starts to become a dwindling minority, the laws of the federal government need to be revised to reflect this change rather than deflect it.
Cannabis is essential to many people for a multitude of different reasons, but for those veterans who have used it to help treat and heal mental and physical wounds they’ve acquired, it has quite possibly saved their lives.
As we take time this November 11th to honor and remember the men and women who have given so much of themselves in their military service, it’s important that they not be forgotten on the other 364 days of the year. Veterans who have served this nation have access to medicinal cannabis in more than half of the United States now, but we can help serve them back by making it available in all fifty.