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Opinion: Medical marijuana saved me and other veterans. Why does the military punish us for it?

Published in Washington Post, July 27, 2021 link

Lindsay Church is a U.S. Navy veteran and executive director of Minority Veterans of America.

For many veterans like myself, cannabis is the difference between living a productive life and living in constant pain. But I never thought that using an alternative medical treatment would put the biggest opportunity of my career in jeopardy.

While serving in the Navy, I experienced a series of failed surgeries and medical procedures beginning in 2009 and was left virtually dependent on narcotic painkillers. At one point, I was on 17 medications while on active duty and holding a top secret security clearance.

Somewhere around surgery number six in 2014, I finally made the decision to try cannabis, purchasing it legally from a dispensary where I lived, in Washington state. Cannabis turned out to be a lifesaving choice, allowing me to wean off the addictive narcotics.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration invited me to take part in a commission to review sexual assault in the military, because of my work as executive director of Minority Veterans of America. As part of the process, I was asked about drug use.

I filled out the paperwork honestly, disclosing that I use cannabis to control my chronic pain. My disclosure triggered a hold on my appointment and, ultimately, I removed myself from consideration for fear I’d be denied a security clearance, potentially barring me from ever serving my country again.

Though my experience involves high-level security clearances and government agencies, it’s no different than others who are denied benefits or stigmatized because of their cannabis use.

According to Veterans Affairs, almost 60 percent of veterans returning from the Middle East suffer from chronic pain. It’s also estimated that almost 68,000 veterans have an opioid use disorder and are twice as likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose as nonveterans. It’s no wonder so many veterans seek alternative methods to treat their physical and mental health conditions. Cannabis use among veterans has come to the forefront recently, spurred by cases such as Sean Worsley’s, an Iraq veteran and Purple Heart recipient who found relief for his post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury by using medical marijuana. Worsley was traveling with family when he was arrested in 2016 on felony charges for possessing cannabis deemed “other than personal use” by the officer, even after Worsley produced his medical cannabis card and explained the situation.

Worsley ended up spending eight months in jail and had his VA benefits cut off. It was not surprising that Sean is Black and the officer who arrested him was White. The American Civil Liberties Union reports that African Americans are 3.73 times more likely than White people to be arrested for cannabis possession. The systemic racism baked into our justice system is obvious in Worsley’s case and thousands of others like his, including minority veterans who just want relief from their constant pain and mental anguish. Worsley’s recent pardon doesn’t undo the injustice he suffered or reclaim the time he lost to a discriminatory policy.

There is no reason why cannabis use, especially for veterans, should continue to be criminalized. Why should veterans be pumped full of opioids that often don’t work, when research indicates cannabis is a viable alternative treatment? Studies show that in states where cannabis is legal, opioid deaths were reduced by more than 20 percent. The majority of participants in one study even indicated they used cannabis as a substitute for other substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and prescription medication.

Cannabis legalization is inevitable. That’s why I am calling on the VA to reevaluate their policies on cannabis, and challenging Congress to introduce and pass legislation that allows VA physicians to discuss cannabis use with patients.

On a federal level, the Biden-Harris administration must consider how legalizing cannabis use could benefit the country. This administration, which is supposed to be the most progressive in history, has insisted on reinforcing antiquated policies that perpetuate the war on drugs — continuing to attack communities of color, the poor and disabled people.

This administration would be well served to follow the lead of Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) who have introduced legislation that removes federal penalties, expunges nonviolent federal cannabis-related criminal records and lets states decide if and how to legalize it.

Delaying legalization because of a lack of federal regulation demonizes and penalizes the American people. We saw it in the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, whose dreams of participating in the Olympics were ripped away for using cannabis after her mother’s death. We see it in workplaces across the country, including in the White House, where employees are dismissed for use. And we see it in our communities where people are still jailed for possession of minor amounts of cannabis.

Our veterans have served this country, and deserve to live without pain and free from tragic opioid addictions. It’s time for our leaders to get on board and serve them.

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