On Memorial Day, America pauses to remember those who gave their lives in service to the country.
It’s also a day for a grateful nation to thank and assist its nearly 19 million veterans, many of whom survived their service only to return to civilian life with battle scars seen and unseen.
As the nation continues to come to grips with how best to help its wounded warriors, an increasing number of veterans — and the organizations that support them — are demanding safe access to medical marijuana to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other physical and mental afflictions.
Last month, the American Legion sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging his administration to reschedule marijuana to permit research into its medical efficacy for treating vets.
Under the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is listed alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy as a Schedule I substance — the strictest of classifications, defined as having a high potential for abuse and no “currently accepted medical use.”
But veterans and a growing number of vet-focused groups in the 29 states that have legalized medical marijuana are increasingly unwilling to wait for the federal government to make a move on what they say is life-saving medicine.
“Many young vets tell me that cannabis is the only thing that has ever helped them with PTSD,” said Roger Martin, an Army veteran and founder of Grow for Vets USA, a nonprofit that distributes free medical cannabis products to veterans.
Weed for Warriors has staged numerous rallies and protests demanding access to medical cannabis for veterans; it also recently called on U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “take immediate action” on allowing scientific research on cannabis.
Beyond demanding change to federal laws, overcoming marijuana’s social stigma among both veterans and the public is key to getting medicine in the hands of our veterans, said Sean Kiernan, a veteran of the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry and president of Weed for Warriors, a nonprofit that also provides vets with free medical marijuana.
“The reality is, if cannabis was socially acceptable, we’d have a lot more people choosing it and a lot more people saved,” he said.
When it comes to putting this potentially life-saving medicine in the hands of veterans, time is of the essence.
The risk of veterans dying by suicide is significantly higher than that of the adult civilian population, according to a recent report from the VA using 2014 data that shows as many as 20 military veterans take their own lives daily.
But Grow for Vets’ Martin said the VA statistics don’t tell the whole story. He estimates that more than 1 million vets are currently taking opiates, most of which were obtained from VA facilities. As a result, he said, many veterans are dependent on pharmaceuticals and at a greater risk of overdose or suicide.
“The reality is we lose more than 50 vets a day now to prescription drug overdose and suicide,” he said. “We have vets coming to us taking 25, 30, 40 different prescription meds a day — the record so far is 87. They pass out deadly drugs to vets like giving candy to kids on Halloween night, it’s absolutely obscene.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the nonprofit organizations helping veterans by providing support and cannabis resources. Know of a veteran-minded group that’s not on this list? Share details in the comments below.
Roberto Pickering, founder of The Battlefield Foundation, far left, and marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley pose for a photo with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford at the 2016 American Legion national convention in Cincinnati. (Courtesy of The Battlefield Foundation)
How it helps: The newly formed nonprofit provides emotional support to veterans and their families, educates veterans about medical marijuana and helps them find jobs in the legal cannabis industry.
Backstory: The group is founded by former Marine sniper Roberto Pickering and backed by Dr. Sue Sisley of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Pickering returned from Iraq with PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol and prescriptions before a fellow vet turned him on to cannabis. Sisley is currently running MAPS’ FDA- and DEA-approved clinical study to determine whether smoked marijuana can reduce the symptoms of chronic PTSD in veterans.
Where: The nonprofit has chapters in California, Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington; plans are in the works to expand to East Coast states that recently legalized marijuana.
How it helps: Organization founder and executive director Roger Martin estimates the group has given away more than $ 1.2 million of medical cannabis to veterans over the past three years.
Backstory: Martin is an Army veteran who credits cannabis with saving his life by helping him overcome a 10-year addiction to Oxycontin and Ambien. Grow for Vets recently moved its operations from Colorado to Las Vegas to better serve large veteran populations in that state and nearby Southern California.
Where: Nationwide; some state NORML chapters have developed local veterans outreach programs. Check this map to see if your state has a NORML veterans chapter.
How it helps: The nonprofit public-interest group’s mission is to move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and to serve as an advocate for consumers to ensure they have access to marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable.
Backstory: Since its founding in 1970, NORML has lobbied state and federal legislators to reform state and federal marijuana laws, whether by voter initiative or through the elected legislatures.
Veterans Cannabis Group (VCG)
How it helps: The nonprofit collective is an advocate in the VA for veterans who use medical cannabis. It provides education, safe access to medical cannabis, information on VA resources and benefits, and opportunities for veterans to work in the cannabis industry.
Backstory: Founder Aaron Augusts served in the Army and was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He formed VCG in 2014 to help veterans get access to medical marijuana along with all the benefits they earned by serving their country.
How it helps: Through education, advocacy, research support and partnerships with like-minded organizations, VCP works to help veterans improve their quality of life through access to medical marijuana and information about finding employment in the legal cannabis sector.
Backstory: The project’s founder, Nick Etten, is a former Navy Seal and an Annapolis graduate. He started the group in 2016 with plans to expand nationwide this fall.
Where: The California-based nonprofit has chapters across that state, as well as in Florida, New Jersey, Tennessee, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin. International chapters are also at work in Great Britain and Australia.
How it helps: Weed for Warriors educates veterans on the benefits of medical marijuana while providing free cannabis to veterans who have proof of service and a current medical marijuana recommendation.
Backstory: Weed for Warriors was started in San Jose, California, in 2014 by Marine veteran Kevin Richardson. Today, it’s headed by president Sean Kiernan, a former U.S. Army Airborne infantryman who said he returned from tours in Central and South America with PTSD, attempted suicide and was committed involuntarily to a VA hospital for a brief period. Kiernan turned to cannabis as an alternative to VA-prescribed drugs and turned his life around.