Young vets are casting marijuana legalization as part of their effort to reclaim their health and end veteran suicides.
Recent studies have found that veterans fare worse when they first return home, compared to the population at large, even when their service-related wounds are accounted for. Suicide rates of veterans are higher than the rates of civilians. Over the last decade, the federal government has dedicated considerable resources to preventing this trend and increasing veterans’ access to mental health services.
Yet some advocates for change say that the way the VA spends money in these efforts is mired in antiquated practices, obscuring the services veterans need in order to improve their lives after service. One potential solution: seeing those services as readily available on the internet.
And in a letter published this week, veterans said they will fight to make that possible. They want to end the VA’s legal restrictions against marijuana, and they made their case in the form of a petition with more than 100,000 signatures so far.
The practice of smoking marijuana to relieve physical and psychological trauma for pain relief is a longstanding tradition among veterans, some of whom argue that the federal government must do more to make that available.
“It’s a treatable mental illness, and it has less stigma,” said Holly Robinson Peete, a former Air Force Academy communications officer who is a co-chair of the Marijuana Political Action Committee, a group of veterans campaigning for legalization.
“Most veterans, regardless of their deployment, know someone that’s a veteran that smokes marijuana,” she said. “There are people that we see regularly who smoke marijuana and get it off the street and it relieves their pain for a while. It helps them function better. And all the physiological markers point to that, so it just doesn’t make sense why it is illegal for anybody to get access to it.”
Approximately 2 million American veterans have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The most prevalent causes of veteran suicide have been post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and opioid abuse.
One study found that veterans that suffer from PTSD or TBI have an 86% higher risk of using illicit drugs, and approximately 20% of them, or roughly 130,000 vets, suffered an overdose.
“Some veterans have been so devastated by their time in service that they turned to drugs for relief, many of them suffering from acute trauma while deployed, including; chemical exposures during war, gunshot wounds, combat injuries, sexual assault, and PTSD/TBI,” the study found.
To help vets cope with the stress of deployment and return home, both veterans and advocates often turn to cannabis to relieve their symptoms and return to good health. These veterans seek out medicinal dispensaries that sell legally prescribed marijuana products such as Tinctures, Citrus Mints and Soap, Kombucha and Essence.
But in a 1996 federal law, the Controlled Substances Act, Congress prohibited marijuana from medical use. In 2003, federal legislators limited the distribution of medical marijuana to states that allow it, so state policies around legalized marijuana vary widely. In some states, it is legal to grow it at home, under the watchful eye of the state medical board.
Most states, however, have become economically and politically integrated into the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, and so new policy cannot be imposed from the federal government.
That disconnect has prompted questions about the federal government’s obligations to veterans.
“It’s time to get veterans off this list of banned substances,” writes a flyer from the pro-legalization group Veterans for Sensible Marijuana Law. “Politicians have a duty to support veterans by taking advantage of the authority given to them by Congress and abandoning the unjust and stupid war on medical marijuana.”
Suicide is the number one cause of death among veterans between the ages of 18 and 25, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Studies have shown that children who grow up exposed to cannabinoids and who smoke it experience higher rates of self-harm, such as slashing their arms or wrists.
Robinson Peete has two children of her own, including a daughter who is 7 months old, and advocates for reform. She sits on several boards, including one that helps veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts.
“My husband and I both experienced PTSD,” she said. “My daughter comes here and we find all these other veterans to engage with them on their crisis issues, and so we’re able to see what they need and give them the tools that they need to get through it.”