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Why Won't the US Government Let Veterans Smoke Weed?

Denying doctors employed by the Veterans Administration (VA) the permission to discuss those options is crazy, and a civil liberties issue.
Photo via The U.S. Army

This article originally appeared on VICE.

We Americans love to send our armed forces, often recruited from black and Hispanic neighborhoods devoid of real economic opportunity, to fight in exotic foreign conflicts while we relax at home and consume things, unconcerned about the impact all that combat has on those citizens' lives.

So it should come as little surprise that the House of Representatives last Wednesday rejected an amendment to the annual bill funding veterans' health care that would have permitted military doctors in states with medical marijuana already on the books to discuss pot treatment options with their patients.


The vote was tantalizingly close, however, with the amendment failing 222–195. In fact, 22 Republicans crossed over to join the majority of Democrats in favor of the proposal, which, according to medical studies, could help some of the millions of vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The bipartisan tide of momentum for drug legalization, it seems, is reaching the highest levels of the federal government — and even threatening to rope in our sacred troops, whom we are apparently fine with risking life and limb in the desert so long as they never, ever get high.

But one vote in particular stood out even as reformers cheered the broader political winds continuing to move in their favor: Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and a close ally of both President Obama and 2016 presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, voted no, drawing jeers from the legalization crowd.

"It's shocking that the chair of the DNC would stand with so many Republicans in voting to censor doctors from discussing medical marijuana with US military veterans who are seeking relief for their pain," said Tom Angell, founder and chairman of Marijuana Majority, a legalization advocacy group. "This vote from someone who is supposed to be a shrewd political operator is made all the more inexplicable by the fact that poll after poll shows voters in her state favor medical marijuana by huge margins. She's way behind the times on this, and she's going to find that out in November, when Florida voters overwhelmingly pass the medical marijuana initiative that's on the ballot."


Indeed, medical weed seems virtually certain to arrive in the Sunshine State one way or another by this time next year: The ballot initiative to amend the Constitution and permit medical use has an excellent shot at passage in November, with a Quinnipiac University poll last week finding 88 percent support. Even Tea Party favorite Gov. Rick Scott has felt compelled to jump on the bandwagon as part of his re-election drive (presumably in hopes of winning over libertarians), albeit with tentative support for a much weaker alternative proposal.

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I reached out to Wasserman-Schultz's office to ask why a leader of the nation's premier center-left party would vote against something like this.

“Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz felt that it was premature to vote for such an amendment given that HHS has approved a new study to look at marijuana’s potential effects on PTSD," Sean Barlett, her spokesman, said in a statement after indicating his boss was not going to make time for an interview. "While there is evidence that medical marijuana is effective in providing relief in some medical conditions, the Congresswoman looks forward to the results of that study before making a policy determination.”

The problem is that even if you have your doubts about the usefulness of medical marijuana as a fix for the woes that come with a condition like PTSD — which seems perfectly reasonable — denying doctors employed by the Veterans Administration (VA) the permission to even discuss those options is crazy, not to mention something of a civil liberties issue.


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"Veterans Affairs has made it clear they don't want any doctors inside the system recommending cannabis," says Michael Krawitz, the executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, who was injured while serving in the Air Force in Guam in the 1980s. "The VA's General Counsel has weighed in on this and said the DEA has been right on their shoulder, essentially threatening the VA that if doctors recommend cannabis, they'd be aiding and abetting criminals. And since VA doctors don't have free speech, they are in no position to argue."

Just as important, Wasserman-Schultz is going to have the ear of Clinton if and when she becomes the Democratic Party's 2016 nominee. Given the former Secretary of State's tendency to embrace the safe, establishment course rather than stake out new territory, one can't help but wonder if Wasserman-Schultz's vote is an indication of what to expect from a President Clinton (Part II) when it comes to drug policy.

"My read is that there's still some caution in the air on this issue," said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as a top adviser to Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. "It's an issue that could very easily be taken by Republicans and thrown back against them and imputed not just to one member of the Congress but all Democrats. But I don't think it's a loser, and the veterans' dimension of it makes it more acceptable to more people."

Put another way, it's one thing for many Democratic Party officials to refuse to publicly embrace all-out legalization given the experiments still playing out in Colorado and Washington. But nixing the very possibility of treating veterans suffering from everything from psychological conditions like PTSD to chronic pain with pot makes no sense. It's not like this is some radical new drug that we have to test to make sure it won't kill those who dare consume it. Worst case scenario? A few veterans get baked out of their minds and go back to feeling miserable a few hours later.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter:@matthewt_ny.

Photo via Flickr