Convincingly arguing they’ve lost enough of their lives and limbs and peace of mind to earn the right to seek relief from their ensuing pain – physical or psychological – however they damn choose, veterans and their advocates are increasingly demanding freedom from toxic, addictive, often-calamitous prescription meds and access to medical weed. Several national protests this week around Veterans Day culminated in a march on Washington, D.C., where protesting veterans dumped a mountain of pill bottles in front of the White House to make their harrowing point. “Here’s what the over-medication of our veterans looks like,” one declared. “We don’t want it.”
Millions of veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from a devastating array of physical and psychological ills, from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression, seizures, traumatic brain injury and amputation-related pain. Under current federal law – and despite the fact that 23 states and D.C. have made medical marijuana legal within their borders – V.A. doctors cannot prescribe or even discuss using weed. Thus, vets facing possible loss of benefits are forced to rely on addictive painkillers and psychotropic meds whose side-effects, including suicidal tendencies, can be worse than their initial ailments. Medicinal pot, in contrast, has no side-effects, except for allowing longtime sufferers often reduced to a near-zombie state to feel “like a normal person.” “People’s lives are at stake,” says Dave Bass, a 59-year-old retired Army major who served two tours in Iraq; he now heads Texas’ legal weed campaign, dubbed “Operation Trapped” because “we feel trapped by pharmaceutical drugs.”
This week the Senate, doing what the GOP-controlled House declined to do earlier this year, tentatively opened at least a back door to approving the use of weed when they passed the 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs budget. Tucked into it is a provisionallowing V.A. doctors in states with medical marijuana laws already on the books to discuss pot treatment options; it also bans them from penalizing any patients who turn to a state pot program. The entirely premise of the change, notes one V.A. official, is that, “Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated the same as any other resident.”
Still, the change is partial and tenuous, and veterans’ and medical marijuana advocacy groups are forging ahead with their legalization campaigns. Along with D.C., this week saw protests in Phoenix, Philadelphia and Austin, Texas, a state with no legal pot and 1.7 million veterans, or the second largest number in the country. As part of its awareness campaign, Operation Trapped is collecting 1,000 pill bottles from veterans; each bottle will hold a slip of paper with a vet’s name and toy soldier, to be presented to Texas state legislators. In D.C., protesters marched to the White House and the V.A. – with a smoke break in front – and camped in McPherson Square, where they sold cannabis products, gave away joints, and planted in the ground 22 small American flags to signify the 22 veterans a day who reported commit suicide every day. At each flag base sat an empty pill bottle.