“Low Hanging Fruit:” Advocates say veterans’ MED access would accelerate legalization

By Hilary Corrigan
May 21, 2020

Advocates expect easing MED access for veterans would accelerate legislation and other reform efforts.

Bill Ferguson, co-founder of Veterans Cannabis Coalition, is a U.S. Army infantry combat veteran of the war in Iraq. At a National Cannabis Industry Association webinar on Wednesday, he recounted his experience seeking medical relief through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

His time in the service was hard on his body, he said, and he had pain. He recalled being prescribed Xanax and other strong medications that made him feel like a “zombie.” He found smoking weed helped him, but got arrested for it. He called for the government to allow vets a “non-addictive, non-life-destroying” way to manage afflictions that stem from serving in the military.

Eric Goepel, his co-founder, agreed.

The government has known for more than 20 years about the dangers—including serious complications and side effects—posed by some of the medications prescribed to vets, Goepel said. These drugs can mask symptoms and exacerbate underlying conditions. Goepel pointed to high rates of suicide and overdose among vets since September 11, 2001.

Webinar participants voiced support for the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2019 and the Veterans Equal Access Act. Both are working their way through Congress after passing through the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. 

The former, from Congressman Lou Correa (D-Calif.), would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct cannabis research related to veterans’ diagnoses. The latter, from Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), would allow VA doctors to make state-legal medical marijuana recommendations.

Ferguson expects passing the veterans-related legislation would open the floodgates for other cannabis legislation, including banking access. “I think we are the low-hanging fruit,” he said.

‘A travesty’

Blumenauer said 47 states now have some form of legal cannabis. Yet the federal government has failed to keep pace. He called marijuana’s continued status as a schedule one drug “a travesty,” noting that it has nominal side effects and is not expensive. Having the VA embrace cannabis would result in better care for vets directly from their physicians, he said.

Vets returning with psychological scars have long asked for cannabis, along with research related to it, Correa said. And the VA has authority to do such research.

“The VA has chosen to put their heads in a hole in the ground and not address this issue,” he said. He expects that if his bill succeeds, other cannabis legislation will follow.

Blumenauer predicted significant progress this year on cannabis issues, including banking and the Veterans Access Bill. He stressed the public support for vets’ access to cannabis. An American Legion poll in 2017 found 92% of veterans support research into cannabis and 83% of veteran households support legalizing MED. Blumenauer pointed out how a number of Republican senators now face, “shall we just say, difficult re-elections.”

But Correa added there’s a lingering stigma among some voters about cannabis, especially in conservative states and areas such as his Orange County district. After hearing negative messages for decades, some older voters will not change their minds about the drug.