Eight states now allow all adults 21 and over to cultivate, posses and consume cannabis. That’s on top of the 26 states that now recognize some form of decriminalized medical marijuana.
But for active-duty military personnel and veterans — even in those states where decriminalization is in full effect — seeking out the benefits of medicinal cannabis can leave them in hostile territory.
And among those decriminalized states are the homes to some of the nation’s largest military installations. Tens of thousands of sailors and Marines are stationed in the San Diego, California, area alone. And Colorado, the de facto capital of the American recreational marijuana industry since the state legalized in 2012, is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
But no matter where a solider, sailor, Marine or other active-duty member of the U.S. military is stationed, cannabis is off-limits – with severe consequences for anyone caught outside those limits.
The U.S. military considers marijuana a controlled substance. Use by military personnel is punishable by “separation” or discharge, which means separation from benefits available to active duty military, like the college tuition assistance offered under the G.I. Bill — one of the most common motivators for people enlisting in the first place.
Those still considering a career in the military or serving as a reservist also need to tread carefully around cannabis, because if they’re caught with it, they could also be discharged and separated from any benefits.
Is military brass blind on booze?
This stringent prohibition is in stark contrast to the military’s tacit approval of recreational binge drinking.
“Tom,” a Navy veteran who declined to provide his last name for fear of reprisal — particularly loss of benefits — told the Times-Call that, at least in his branch of the service, his superiors all but encouraged alcohol abuse.
“It’s like a big frat because at every port it’s ‘let’s go out and get as drunk as possible,’” he said. “I thought it was so odd that the Navy was so gung ho about drinking and so against marijuana. I consider them on the same level.”
Military veterans and active duty personnel – many already suffering from chronic pain and PTSD – are prime candidates for the healing benefits of medical cannabis, which has shown great efficacy for these two most common service-related illnesses. This makes the military’s inflexibility on safe access one of the drug war’s most brutal ironies.
While there’s nothing stopping vets from accessing cannabis in theory, they have to work harder to get it. Doctors with the Veterans Administration can’t recommend cannabis to their veteran patients – though starting earlier this year, VA doctors can at least talk to their patients about the plant.
But there’s a major catch.
Any vet who uses cannabis is risking the loss of their VA prescriptions, usually opiate painkillers for debilitating chronic conditions. Cannabis offers a supplement and alternative, but not always a complete replacement for vets suffering from the repercussions of major trauma.
For these vets, losing their painkillers is an agonizing prospect. But if they fail the drug screening during their checkup, their VA doctor is empowered to cut off their prescription. For vets trying to use cannabis to offset the negative side effects of opiates (and minimize their dosage to stave of physical dependence) this presents a frustrating dilemma.
And the VA shows few if any public signals of softening its stance, officially discouraging vets from utilizing cannabis medicine.
Discouraging by design
One of the reasons why cannabis is off-limits to vets is the old weed research Catch-22: the lack-of-research negative feedback loop. Because the plant is illegal, there’s not enough research, which means doctors say they can’t recommend it. And since there’s no research, the plant stays illegal, which means no research, which means doctors say they can’t recommend it…
To combat that vicious cycle, more than a dozen pro-cannabis veterans groups have popped up across the nation with a shared mission of cultivating and distributing the plant to vets and while advocating for its wider acceptance.
California, with its open-ended provision for a doctor to recommend the plant for any condition that it may help – blasted by other states as too lax and leading to too many people getting their hands on weed – is a bright, shining exception.
But even in the Golden State, military brass and VA administrators are standing between our nation’s military men and women and the progress being made on safe access.
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