A Call to Action from Veterans Rights Groups after Congress Fails to Advance Key Cannabis Legislation
Just over one week ago, the House Veterans Affairs Committee cancelled votes on the three crucial cannabis bills aimed at providing a better quality of life for thousands of our nation’s military vets.
The sudden cancellation came as a shock even to advocates jaded by years of inaction from the federal government on the issue considering how high public sentiment currently is on marijuana and the fact that a Democrat-controlled Congress seems to be aware of this cultural shift and has the power to spark real reform.
Five veterans died by suicide in just three days last month – all five on Department of Veterans Affairs property. The Veterans Affairs Committee and the Government Oversight Committee in Congress each held hearings on veteran suicide in the last week, yet they inexplicably shelved these bills that would:
allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where it is legal
codify into law a current VA policy that protects vets from losing their benefits due to cannabis use
require Veterans Affairs to conduct clinical trials on the benefits of cannabis in the treatment of all-too common service-related conditions such as PTSD and chronic pain
The only reason given for the last-minute indecision was an alleged 11th hour surge of “bipartisan feedback and renewed interest from committee members” and promises to “dedicate time exclusively to this topic in the future to allow more voices to be heard.”
OUR VETS ARE DYING UNNECESSARILY EVERY DAY
Last year, our friends at the Veterans Cannabis Coalition endorsed and promoted the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act. The bill made history as the first stand-alone piece of cannabis legislation to advance out of committee hearings.
Unfortunately, at that time the Congress was controlled by conservative Republicans and then-Speaker Paul Ryan refused to even schedule the bill for a full Congressional vote.
Now with Dems in charge of Congress, unfortunately, they are not faring much better.
The stats don’t lie - more than 6,000 of our military veterans have taken their own lives in this period of inaction. . . including the five who decided to do so on VA grounds during those terrible three days in April.
To get the perspective of a veteran and a frontline advocate for cannabis, we reached out to Eric Goepel, Founder of Veterans Cannabis Coalition (VCC), to find out what happened last week in Washington, where the movement goes from here, and how we can all help.
Goepel along with VCC co-Founder Bill Ferguson have each invested a lot of time, effort, and dedication working the halls of Congress in the nation’s capital expanding their influence as their fact-based messaging about the benefits of cannabis for veterans has taken root.
For Ferguson and Goepel, the triple-whammy of inaction last week was certainly disappointing. However, the mission hasn’t failed, it has just been delayed, something these two Army vets probably experienced a time or two while in the service. But as author Napoleon Hill once wrote, “Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat.”
Goepel clearly sees that opportunity.
Defenders of the status quo, he says, may be quiet but they are powerful. This is the only way to explain how bills like the ones shut down last week can enjoy such wide support right up until it’s time to put them to a vote. He told us that wherever this silent resistance is coming from is almost irrelevant due to the significant gravity being applied by veterans like he and others. Goepel adds, “In this reversal we have an opportunity to potentially blow past the current obstacles by bringing some real public pressure.”
Earlier this week, Bill Ferguson personally walked a letter drafted by Veterans Cannabis Coalition into the D.C. offices of Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN). The letter cuts right to the heart of this important issue and has been endorsed by several prominent veterans representing the full spectrum of gender, generation, faith, and race.
Congressman Takano is the Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and while he is not a vet himself, he has been very outspoken in recent years about combating the overdose and suicide epidemics affecting the veteran community.
Congressman Roe is the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Roe spent two years in the Army Medical Corps and over three decades in private practice as a physician.
A third mark on their influence list is Rep. Julia Brownley (D–CA) who is the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on Health under the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
All three should be reliable allies in the reform movement, but frankly they all failed to meet the challenge when given not one but three opportunities to land on the right side of history last week.
Goepel remains optimistic that they can be convinced.
Takano and Brownley represent Southern California districts where the movement for veterans’ access to cannabis is perhaps the strongest in the nation with groups like VCC, Weed for Warriors, Veterans Walk and Talk and others calling it their HQ.
The letter delivered to the influential lawmakers this week is a call to action for them and their colleagues on Capitol Hill. Expertly crafted, it conveys the urgency of the situation in a language that anyone can understand and empathize with, regardless of what side of the political aisle they sit on.
As Goepel told us, and as he reiterates in the letter, a post-9/11 vet showing signs of PTSD, TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and chronic pain is an all-too-common occurrence and the current course of treatment from Veterans’ Affairs is at the root of the troubles that many veterans are facing, mentally and physically.
Goepel says that a standard cocktail to treat such a case “could include half-a-dozen different medications—perhaps Klonopin (clonazepam) for anxiety, along with Seroquel (quetiapine) for depression, Neurontin (gabapentin) for pain, Adderall (amphetamine) for focus, Ambien (zolpidem) for sleep, and Risperdal (risperidone) as an antipsychotic.”
As he so bluntly puts it, these drugs are often ineffective when taken individually and potentially downright deadly when taken in conjunction.
But as it stands now, if that afflicted vet turns to medical marijuana instead of that dangerous synthetic concoction being pushed by his or her VA doc, they risk having their permanent medical record with Veterans Affairs tarnished with a red flag referred to as “Cannabis Use Disorder”.
After being hit with that label the VA has the authority to “modify” that vet’s care plan. So, for example, if that veteran was taking prescribed opioids to deal with severe pain, but was using MMJ to combat side effects like a lack of appetite or poor sleep patterns, the VA could forcefully taper them off of the opioids as a twisted and nonsensical form of punishment – leaving that vet in pain and in withdrawal.
Much of the data that would shed necessary light on this subject is tightly held by the Department of Veterans Affairs and would require a demand from Congress to access.
Goepel has two questions he’d love to ask VA leadership.
First, how many veterans in your system have been flagged for Cannabis Use Disorder?
Second, how many of those who have been flagged have been tapered off of opioids?
“The refuge of the VA is the lack of information that we have,” concedes Goepel.
The whiplash from the VA on the opioid crisis in the veteran community has led to a very public show from the Department to try to demonstrate that they are aware of some sort of problem and are committed to addressing it somehow. But nobody with an ounce of sense has ever argued that opiate-based painkillers are not a viable medication when responsibly prescribed in specific circumstances. In their rush to save face, the VA has stripped another pain management tool from vets in need.
Opioids can be an effective form of pain medication but VCC is fighting to put cannabis on the frontlines of that process. Adding insult to injury, however, the VA has been a vocal opponent to all proposed legislation regarding cannabis reform for vets and this latest round was no different.
When compelled recently for a reason why legislation calling for the study of medical marijuana on veterans was unnecessary in the eyes of the Department, the answer given was that such legislation would be redundant since the VA is already conducting their own research.
Pressed further, it was revealed that the study in question is being performed by researchers at the University of California in San Diego and that they are not studying cannabis, but CBD isolate.
Their estimated date of completion for this errant study?
Yep, four years from now they plan to tell us that isolated CBD isn’t all that effective after all and by their own math, more than 24,000 more vets will have taken their own lives while waiting for real help.
We know that Goepel and Ferguson and other dedicated veterans will continue to fight for veterans’ rights, but what can the rest of us do?
As they say, “all politics is local”.
If your local representatives happen to be Rep. Takano, Roe, or Brownley – hit them up!
If you live outside of their districts, but you are a military veteran, HIT THEM UP!
They sit on powerful committees that are dedicated to aiding ALL veterans, regardless of where they reside. But while they are essentially the gatekeepers to advancing any potential legislation forward for a full House vote, we will eventually need wide-ranging bipartisan support from all parts of the country.
Veterans Cannabis Coalition has made THIS LINK available which will use some very basic info from you to automatically locate all of your state Congressmen and Senators. With a few simple clicks you can send a personalized form letter and even a Tweet to these lawmakers.
They claim that feedback swayed their previous inaction, let’s show them some real feedback from the grassroots of the cannabis culture all the way to Capitol Hill.
Military veterans have shouldered an unbelievable amount of the burden to make cannabis reform a reality and we at Beard Bros. Pharms are eternally grateful to these groups and individuals for their service and for their advocacy. The least we can do is help to spread the word and rattle some political cages when called to action, won’t you do the same?