Veterans Need Clarity, Better Access to Medical Cannabis

Our Leaf411 Blog periodically shares content from The Cannigma, a trusted resource for research-backed medical cannabis education and information. 

This article was originally published on The Cannigma and appears here with permission. https://cannigma.com/regulation/veterans-need-clarity-access-to-medical-cannabis/

Scientific and anecdotal evidence suggests that THC and CBD are helpful in treating chronic pain and PTSD, two conditions that many soldiers bring back with them after tours of duty. Cannabis and PTSD research shows promise and many military veterans have said the plant medicine helps reduce anxiety and increase sound sleep. A review of patients’ symptoms published in 2014 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs reported a more than 75% reduction in CAPS (Clinician Administered Post-traumatic Scale) symptom scores following cannabis therapy.

A US Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. (George Sheldon/Shutterstock)

Legal But Not Allowed

However, doctors at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), the government agency responsible for medical care for former military personnel, cannot prescribe cannabis because it is not approved by the FDA and is illegal under federal law. Furthermore, U.S. veterans who use medical marijuana can lose benefits, including housing, disability, and retirement, even if they live in one of the 33 states where medical cannabis is legal, and despite the VA stating on its website that “veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use.” 

Adding to the confusion, members of Congress are sponsoring various bills that focus on veterans’ safe use of cannabis therapies but without any path toward decriminalizing or legalizing the plant on the federal level. “The VA needs to catch up with the times and recognize the growing role of the cannabis economy in our country,” says House Representative Katherine Clark, a cosponsor of one such bill, in a press release. “Our veterans shouldn’t be penalized or denied the benefits they have earned because they live and work in a state where marijuana is legal.”

PTSD is a qualifying condition for medical marijuana under state law in over half of US states. 

This is a great step forward for the service members who suffer — and there are many. According to the VA, between 11-20% of Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) veterans have PTSD in a given year. Gulf War (Desert Storm) vets: 12%. It is estimated that 30% of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime. The VA’s research on persistent chronic pain addresses the correlation to depression, anxiety, poor sleep patterns, decreased quality of life and substance use disorders.

US soldiers (Shutterstock)

Challenging and Changing the Law

Iraq war veteran Jose Belen knows the situation all too well. As a decorated United States Army combat veteran and co-founder of Florida Mission Zero, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating PTSD and suicide, Belen is an outspoken advocate for compassionate access to medical cannabis for veterans (and non-veterans). He knows first hand of the plant’s medicinal value and is one of a handful of plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Department of Justice over the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which by definition has no medicinal value. “I am still waiting for the DEA to respond to the court’s order for their definitive answer on the topic,” says Belen.

As service members find themselves caught between federal laws and state legislation, access to medical marijuana is becoming a priority for veterans advocacy groups like Belen’s. “It is a constant battle, day to day, from denial to acceptance and from combat trauma to feeling strong. I want to create change and build a cannabis ecosystem for vets. I have some amazing ideas to implement, from entrepreneurship to opportunity. First, we need to address chronic pain, depression and suicide that is rife in the veteran community,” he says.

Belen, eternally optimistic, sees progress especially on the federal level with bills that would expand medical cannabis access to eligible veterans, including the Veterans Equal Access Act and Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act. For benefits, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Gardner are working on proposals so that the VA “may not use the fact that [a veteran’s] income is derived, in whole or in part, from working in the marijuana industry as a factor in determining whether to guarantee, issue, or make a housing loan.”

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Don’t forget about Leaf411’s upcoming free Leaf Learning Series: Supporting Veterans event on November 19, 2020, where you can hear directly from Veterans who share their stories and guidance for using cannabis for healing.


Supporting Our Veterans This November

Medically reviewed by Katherine Golden, RN
Written by Denise Gonzalez-Walker

2020 has been an incredibly challenging year for all of us, including our military Veterans. This November, Leaf411 is putting the spotlight on those who’ve served, celebrating their stories and creating new connections through our virtual Leaf Learning Series: Supporting Veterans event scheduled for Thursday, November 19, from 4-7 pm MST.

Two veterans sitting across from one another at a table, recording a podcast about how cannabis benefitted their healing.

We’re also launching a new podcast, Leaf Live, as part of the educational event. Our  podcasts will feature Vets sharing their stories and talking about how cannabis helped them manage conditions brought on by their call of duty. Our event will also feature these Vets and the nonprofits they founded to support fellow service members.

Keep reading to learn more about why we’re focusing on Veterans this month, as well as to learn about the nonprofits we’re partnering with for our interactive learning series event.

A Black veteran stares out a window from a darkened room.

2020 Has Been a Difficult Year for Our Veterans

Pandemic-related shutdowns and social distancing restrictions changed all our lives this year, but for Veterans the impact has been especially difficult.

Following military duty, many Vets have found purpose by serving as community leaders, speaking publicly about their own hardships and motivating others to overcome challenges and barriers. The majority of these outlets—meetings, presentations and in-person classes—were abruptly shut down in early 2020 as stay-at-home restrictions were quickly enacted in response to the rapidly-spreading virus. While medical experts agree that the restrictions were urgently needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, there was little discussion about how restrictions would impact communities that rely heavily on one another for connection and support.

A female Veteran in military uniform stares to the side with a pensive look.

Even during normal times, Veterans are at increased risk for depression, PTSD, and other mental health concerns when compared to non-military civilians. Concerningly, suicide rates among Veterans also trend higher than the general population. The reasons behind this increased risk of mental health conditions are complex, but the realities of 2020 have only exacerbated the situation.

Close up of military field jacket and American flag patch with cannabis flower on top.

Veterans Building Community Around Cannabis

The community built around cannabis, along with the therapeutic benefits of the plant itself, have provided a lifeline for many wounded warriors during dark times. Some of these Veterans have even been inspired to form their own nonprofits to help fellow soldiers along the path of learning and healing.

As Leaf411 contemplated how to celebrate Veterans this November, we decided our best approach was to share our platform with others who are fighting for the right of all Vets to safely, legally access cannabis medicine. Our November 19, 2020, event will feature the voices of Veterans, with educational content geared toward your questions, including how cannabis use may impact VA benefits. We’ll also hear from our supporting member Medically Correct about the cannabis research they’re doing in partnership with the VA. Other Leaf411 members will also be presenting information about their products and answering your questions.

Several Veterans organizations will be on hand to share their stories and connect directly with attendees through interactive chats and a dedicated virtual Veterans Lounge. These organizations include:

  • CanniMedic.org – CannaMedic.org was founded by Navy Veteran and retired Paramedic Firefighter Stanley Atkins II to bridge the gap between medical cannabis, education and patients who could benefit from cannabis or CBD. 
  • Balanced Veterans – Balanced Veterans advocates for alternative therapies for Veterans, including cannabis as a safe alternative to opioids and other pharmaceuticals. The organization also recognizes that community, conversation and holistic healing are all part of the path to healing and provides support to Veterans across all these areas. In addition, Balanced Veterans provides financial support to disabled Veterans in Pennsylvania to offset the cost of medical marijuana card certification.  
  • Veterans for Natural Rights (VNR) – VNR is a Colorado-based nonprofit serving Veterans, their families and friends. The organization is built on the premise that freedom is the birthright of every American. This freedom extends to safely, legally accessing cannabis and psychedelics as research-based treatment options for PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain and other conditions. 
  • Veterans Ending the Stigma (VETS) – This Ohio-based nonprofit seeks to address various stigmas that are commonly connected to Veterans, from outdated opinions about mental illness and homelessness to misconceptions about cannabis.  VETS supports cannabis’s therapeutic potential for PTSD, TBI, chronic pain and other battle-related conditions. 
  • Helmand Valley Growers Company (HVGC) – HVGC was founded by U.S. Special Operations Veterans who understand the challenges that Veterans face as the result of time spent on the battlefield. They’re partnering with cannabis researchers to develop a Veteran-based protocol and provide evidence of the benefits of medical cannabis as an alternative to habit-forming opioids. HVGC is a fully-licensed cannabis company in the state of California, with products sold in legal dispensaries. Profits support the company’s mission to advance the science around cannabis’s potential therapeutic benefits for Veterans. HVGC also formed a separate nonprofit, Battle Brothers Foundation, to provide personal, medical and financial support to struggling Veterans.

A female veteran on her laptop, signing up for the free Leaf Learning event.

Sign Up for Our Leaf Learning Series Today!

We hope you’re able to join us for our next free Leaf Learning series event. Sign up today at this link: https://hopin.to/events/leaf-learning-series-supporting-veterans 

Also, we encourage you to share this information with family members, friends and colleagues who might benefit. While our learning series event is designed for Veterans, it will also include a lot of great educational content geared toward anyone who’s interested in cannabis’s therapeutic potential!

The Leaf411 cannabis nurse hotline provides free, anonymous education and directional support to the general public about the safe use of legal cannabis. We partner with select business members who meet our rigorous standards to extend our education and outreach efforts.


Recognizing Our Fallen Heroes on Memorial Day

Medically reviewed by Katherine Golden, RN
Written by Denise Gonzalez-Walker

While this Memorial Day will be different than most, the true meaning of the holiday remains the same—to honor military service members who died in service to our country.

At Leaf411, we also acknowledge the service members who’ve perished on a different front, as a result of the long-term effects of combat. 

Mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression haunt many veterans long after they have returned home. In addition, chronic pain from past injuries can wear down even the toughest of warriors over time.

Black and white image of a stressed-out veteran in casual clothes, sitting with his head buried in his hands.

Unfortunately, these realities may drive some veterans to feel there are no alternatives for relief. Many veterans describe their frustration from going down a rabbit hole of conventional pharmaceuticals, where more and more medications are prescribed to counteract side effects from other medications. The end result often leaves them feeling like a zombie, as former Army Specialist Leo Bridgewater describes in this news article

Bridgewater was fortunate to discover cannabis as an effective alternative to the pharmaceuticals that the Veteran’s Administration (VA) “passes out like candy” in his words. He continues to advocate for veterans’ access to cannabis and even collaborated with a New Jersey cannabis cultivator to develop a new chemovar (strain) with a mix of terpenes designed with veterans’ needs in mind.

Sadly, for some of our heroes, cannabis remains out of reach either due to stigma or federal restrictions and suicide begins to appear to be the only option for relief. According to Veterans Administration data, the suicide rate among military veterans is 1.5 times the non-military veteran rate in the United States. Every day, over 15 veterans complete a suicide attempt.

Veterans and Cannabis: Fighting for Effective Plant-Based Alternatives

Veterans like Ron Millward who founded Balanced Veterans, Ryan Foster and Kevin Ogar at The Reville Project , and the leaders of Veterans for Natural Rights embrace a more holistic approach which can include cannabis to treat the veterans’ physical and mental wounds. Many of them have lost fellow soldiers to suicide. They are fierce advocates for veterans’ access to cannabis as an alternative to pharmaceutical treatment.

Are you curious to learn more about how veterans have benefited from cannabis? Check out this 21st Century Cannabis panel hosted by GoFire to hear veterans’ firsthand experiences using cannabis to manage PTSD, depression, insomnia and chronic pain.

Sign saying “Support Medical Marijuana” held above a crowd during a public event.
The U.S. Capitol, where several bills are being considered to improve veterans’ access to medical cannabis.

Current Legislative Action to Expand Research and Veterans’ Access to Cannabis

Research supports the value of cannabis as an effective, safe alternative for veterans who are suffering from PTSD and chronic pain. In March 2020, two bills moved forward in the House of Representatives that would expand research on cannabis’s therapeutic potential to treat PTSD and chronic pain (HR 712), and would allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana cards in states with legal marijuana (HR 1647). Currently, VA doctors are restricted from recommending medical marijuana, even in states where it is legal, due to the fact that cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. You can find more details about HR 712 and HR 1647 here.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has created delays in all kinds of important legislation moving forward, including these two bills, veterans like Sensible Colorado’s Kevin Grimsinger and Adam Smith will doubtlessly continue the fight to improve both access and research into cannabis as a safe, effective treatment alternative for veterans.

Holidays Can Be Tough for Survivors

Even in the best of times, holidays can be tough for survivors who’ve lost friends or loved ones.

For veterans, this year’s Memorial Day may be especially difficult due to COVID-19 restrictions. Community events that allow us to get together, reminisce, and celebrate, like the Colorado Veterans Project Memorial Day Run, have been delayed or cancelled.

At Leaf411, it means not being able to meet with our community in person at events like last fall’s Veterans’ Day pop-up at Seed & Smith dispensary. While we have several exciting virtual events in the works, not being able to hear your stories in person and give a hug or a handshake is difficult.

If you’re a veteran who finds yourself struggling this Memorial Day, we encourage you to reach out for help. Find a trusted resource, or call the US Department of Veterans Affairs sponsored Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, or chat them via their website.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available 24 hours a day at at 1-800-273-8255 for anyone who is in crisis. The people staffing the lifeline care and are eager to help—you are not burdening them by calling!

Leaf411 is also here for you. While we’re not qualified to provide crisis services (we’ll refer you to the professionals at the Veterans Crisis Line or Lifeline), we do have the background and clinical experience to provide guidance on how to use cannabis for PTSD, anxiety, chronic pain or other conditions. Call our FREE hotline at 844-LEAF411 (844-532-3411) or chat us from our homepage during hotline hours.

Our guidance goes far beyond what you’ll find on anonymous internet forums. Check out last week’s Leaf411 blog post to see an example of how we triage and provide guidance tailored to individual needs.

Katherine stands smiling at the Leaf411 informational table, ready to help veterans with their questions. Katherine a fully-licensed cannabis-trained nurse.
Leaf 411 Co-Founder and CEO/ED Katherine Golden, RN, at the November 2019 Veteran’s Day pop-up event at Seed & Smith dispensary.
Smaller rocks forming an arch between two larger rocks near the ocean, representing finding balance in summertime.

Welcoming Summer and Looking Forward to New Initiatives

At Leaf411, we’re wishing all of you a safe and healthy Memorial Day, which also marks the traditional kickoff for summer. No doubt that it will be more important than ever this summer to find balance. For many of us, cannabis is one of the tools we rely upon to achieve this.

That’s one reason we’re excited about several upcoming initiatives we’re working on to make cannabis more accessible and affordable for patients. We’re not quite ready to share details yet, but encourage you to subscribe to our newsletter so you can be the first to know as these new programs roll out. Sign up for our Leaf411 newsletter below! 

The Leaf411 cannabis nurse hotline provides free, anonymous education and directional support to the general public about the safe use of legal cannabis. We partner with select business members who meet our rigorous standards to extend our education and outreach efforts.