A veteran prepares to spark a joint in protest of the VA's policy on medical marijuana.
This article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
On a sunny, brisk morning last spring, I stood west of the US Capitol, underneath a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, with six veterans who were joining nearly 100 members of Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy organization. The group was assembled for a day of congressional lobbying to change federal law regarding medical pot, but the vets' idea of politicking differed from the others. Rather than waiting in winged armchairs in the antechambers of congressional offices, they wanted to stick it to the government agency they felt had most betrayed them.
The vets planned to smoke a joint in front of the nearby Department of Veterans Affairs national headquarters. It would be a modest protest—more of a cathartic ritual than a rancorous rally—but their puffs would billow with symbolism. Close to a fifth of returning servicemen and women from America's post-9/11 wars may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a long-lasting syndrome in which everyday occurrences can trigger crippling psychological and physiological responses. These vets believe that smoking pot is a better treatment for PTSD than the slew of opiates, benzos, and antidepressants that the VA uses to medicate the disorder.
Their idea has gained some credence. Eleven out of the 23 states (plus Washington, DC) with medical marijuana programs specifically cite PTSD as a qualifying condition for a pot recommendation; another two make it available at a physician's discretion. The personal stories of veterans turning their lives around after medicating with marijuana have become a poignant rallying cry for the legalization movement. The statistics the vets cite are equally moving. As many as 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the VA's 2012 suicide data report, amounting to what could be described as a slow and mostly invisible tragedy. Medicating with pot could help stem the tide.
Once we arrived in front of the VA, Ryan Begin, a Marine Corps vet from Maine, pulled out a fat, crudely rolled joint and sparked it up. In 2004, a roadside bomb badly mangled his right elbow while he was on patrol in Iraq, leaving him with a disabled arm. He returned home and rampaged through life in a whirlwind of prescription pills and booze. He was arrested multiple times, tried to headbutt the assistant DA prosecuting him, spent 43 days in jail, and eventually lost custody of his daughter. But Begin found that weed helped him deal with his experiences in war and kick his prescription pill addiction. "You'll never be able to forget the things that you saw," he told me weeks later when I visited him in Belfast, Maine. "I think that the cannabis just puts that in a safe place, not beating at the back of your eyeballs and driving you crazy." He smokes upward of a dozen joints a day.
The VA's position on weed is simple: Since marijuana is federally illegal, VA doctors cannot recommend it. So even in states that have legal medical marijuana, veterans who receive their medical care from the VA cannot get a certification for weed or have the government cover the cost. Worse still, a veteran who smokes weed could be violating his or her disability agreement, which could lead to official sanctions. As Dr. Darren Deering, the chief of staff at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, told me, "We are a federal agency. Marijuana is still seen on a federal level as not a legal drug."
The vets finished their joint, and their belly laughs drew curious looks and sniffs from the office workers milling about.
In DC, Begin passed the joint to the other vets and everyone howled with laughter. Smoking weed on federal property remains a crime, even in DC where pot is now legal, but they were willing to take the chance. He read a plaque emblazoned with the VA's motto: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."
I asked him if the VA is doing its job. "Fuck no," Begin fired back.
The vets finished their joint, and their belly laughs drew curious looks and sniffs from the office workers milling about. Did their action accomplish much? Maybe. Tucked into the Senate's 2016 omnibus budget bill was a provision that instructed the VA to recognize state medical marijuana laws and allow VA doctors to recommend marijuana to patients.
While it seems a foregone conclusion that marijuana will be legal in the US soon, this issue illustrates the ups and downs of pot's entry into the mainstream.
On November 10, 2015, that 2016 budget bill, which included lines that would have allowed Ryan Begin and other veterans access to medical marijuana, passed the Senate, but in December, negotiations with the House of Representatives stripped that language.
For more on Krishna's reporting on the politics of weed, check out new episodes of Weediquette every Tuesday at 11 PM on VICELAND.