Against the backdrop of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed, on Sept. 14, 2019, representatives of three leading veterans advocacy groups, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, and Weedmaps Chief Operating Officer Steven Jung discussed the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans and the barriers that make it difficult for veterans to access it.
Along with Ma and Jung, the panel participants at the Hollywood, California, event included, Aaron Augustis, founder of Veterans Cannabis Group (VCG); Sean Kiernan, chief executive officer of Weed for Warriors Project; and Ryan Miller, founder of Operation E.V.A.C. (Educating Veterans About Cannabis).
Ma began the wide-ranging discussion by pointing out the hurdles that face anyone trying to open and operate a legal cannabis business. Federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which places it in the same category as heroin and ecstasy and categorizes it as having no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse and addiction. Subsequently, banks, payroll companies, accounting firms, bookkeepers, and lawyers often refuse to service cannabis businesses.
“Since dispensaries and other cannabis businesses can't open bank accounts, they're forced to handle transactions in cash, including paying their taxes, their rent and their employees,” Ma said. “That's a huge barrier to success in this industry.”
High taxes are another hurdle. In California, for example, taxes in dispensaries are close to 40%.
“When people have to pay that extra 40% in a dispensary, they often choose to go down the street or make a phone call and purchase illegal marijuana instead,” Ma said.
She noted several actions that would address these concerns on a state level, including the establishment of a state-backed financial institution devoted exclusively to the cannabis industry (yet the bill for it was pulled from this year's legislative calendar), and legislation that would allow cannabis companies to deduct the same business expenses as any other business.
With a father-in-law who's a Navy veteran and a brother-in-law currently serving in the Navy,
Ma is aware of the challenges veterans face accessing medical cannabis to treat chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Along with Augustis and the Veterans Cannabis Group, she's promoting a bill in the California Legislature, AB 1569, that would give veterans an exemption from sales taxes on medical cannabis products.
Getting any legislation passed, federal, state or local, requires mobilizing veterans and their advocates to make the issue a pressing one for politicians. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Ma said. “If legislators don't see a lot of people walking the halls, emailing them, texting and phoning, showing up day after day on an issue, they're not going to feel it's a priority.”
To hear more about how Ma and veterans groups are addressing access to medical cannabis, see the video of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed panel discussion.
But, as others on the panel pointed out, open advocacy on cannabis issues poses risks for veterans.
“Many veterans are afraid that they'll lose their veterans medical benefits if they testify in public,” Augustis said. “Right now, the policy of the VA toward cannabis use can be summed up at its best as 'don't ask, don't tell,' ” Kiernan said. He'd found relief in cannabis from PTSD so severe it led him to attempt suicide.
Augustis agreed. After returning home from serving in an Iraqi war zone, he found himself reliving the stress and trauma of active combat.
“Cannabis would calm me down,” he said. “It helped bring me back to the present.”
Today, when he tells a VA counselor about his cannabis use, he said, “They'll ask 'Is it helping you?' I tell them yes. 'Is it hurting you?' I say no, and they'll say, well, then, continue to do it.”
This ambiguous stance is reflected on the VA's website. As long as marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the website states, “VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.” But, “VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.” In addition, “Veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use,” however, the use will be noted in medical records. What's more, VA clinicians cannot write a recommendation for medical marijuana and VA pharmacies will not fill prescriptions for medical cannabis and “will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source.”
“That's why the black market is thriving among vets,” Kiernan said. “Many people have no choice if they don't want the opioids and other pharmaceutical drugs that the VA willing to pay for.”
Miller is hoping that might change. “If the VA could distribute cannabis,” he said, “the three of us on this panel would be out of jobs. I'm looking forward to that. That's my exit strategy.”Veterans fought for liberty and we should have liberty of choice when it comes to cannabis use. Click To Tweet
With more than 18 million veterans in the U.S., “you're not going to find a homogenous voice on the issue of cannabis,” Kiernan noted. “But we can find common ground. Whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, or whatever, we can all agree that cannabis works and that it's a good subtitle for addictive opioids. Veterans fought for liberty and we should have liberty of choice when it comes to cannabis use.”
Featured Image: Representatives of military veterans' groups discuss legal access to medical marijuana at a panel at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed Sept. 14, 2019. From left, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma Aaron Augustis of Veterans Cannabis Group, Sean Kiernan of Weed for Warriors Project, and Ryan Miller of Operation E.V.A.C.. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)