Photos by Jessica Chou for Politico Magazine
A California group is fighting to end a federal prohibition that makes it impossible for veterans to get cannabis through the VA.
Alex is 34 and lives outside of Sacramento. Like many Californians, he vapes marijuana concentrate for a variety of health problems such as anxiety. But even though he lives within a half-hour drive of a legal dispensary, Alex purchases his cannabis on what he likes to call the “duty-free” market. About once a month, he drives an hour to an acquaintance’s house to purchase about an ounce of concentrate, for about half of what he would pay at a state-certified recreational dispensary.
There’s a reason Alex buys on the black market. He’s a disabled military veteran.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project just under 2 million Californians, or around 3.4 percent of the state’s population, get prescriptions for medical marijuana each year. But because of federal drug laws that still consider marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin, the Department of Veterans Affairs will not prescribe marijuana to its patients, even if they are totally disabled like Alex.
In 2007, when he left the Marine Corps at age 21, Alex was offered anti-anxiety medicines by the VA doctors. He declined the pharmaceuticals. “I’d seen so many people get hooked on medications,” he remembers. Instead, he got hooked on alcohol, drinking a bottle of vodka a day. “I wanted to forget,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I wanted to move forward.” But his excessive drinking caused pancreatitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the pancreas. It took him about a year to stop drinking, at which time he switched over to cannabis and started growing his own. It was legal at the time in his county, but is now illegal in California for people looking to grow more than six plants outdoors.
Theoretically, a veteran caught by law enforcement using California’s illicit cannabis market faces little more than a small fine. But given the federal laws against marijuana, a veteran in that situation could find his or her status with the VA in question. And veterans who openly use cannabis, even in cannabis-legal states, in the words of the Military Times, “commonly run into challenges” when trying to find employment.
Even as marijuana legalization continues to expand across the country (33 states have some form of legal marijuana on their books and well-known former politicians have becomes spokesmen for the cannabis industry), many of the nation’s 18.2 million veterans occupy an uncomfortable limbo between rapidly liberalizing cultural attitudes and an unbending federal standard that hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Veterans looking for alternatives to addictive and dangerous opioids and other pharmaceuticals are effectively prevented from using marijuana, by price, policy and quite often the ongoing stigma that marijuana still carries.
Published: May 27, 2020