Medical marijuana for a veteran U.S. Marine is rolled into a joint in Belfast, Maine, Nov. 21, 2014.

Medical marijuana for a veteran U.S. Marine is rolled into a joint in Belfast, Maine, Nov. 21, 2014. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, file

What Wounded Veterans Need: Medical Marijuana

The American Legion, representing millions of wartime vets, calls on Trump to loosen federal restrictions on medical marijuana research to help those suffering from PTSD, TBI, opioid abuse, and more.

After 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans view post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, or TBI, as the “signature” wounds of these conflicts. The Department of Veterans Affairs has spent billions of dollars to better understand the symptoms, effects, and treatments for these injuries. But despite advances in diagnostics and interventions in a complex constellation of physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive defects, TBI and PTSD remain leading causes of death and disability within the veteran community.

There is something else the U.S. can do for suffering veterans: research medical marijuana.

Many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans have contacted the American Legion to relay their personal stories about the efficacy of cannabis in significantly improving their quality of life by enabling sleep, decreasing the prevalence of night terrors, mitigating hyper-alertness, reducing chronic pain, and more. This is why the 2.2 million members of the American Legion are calling on the Trump administration to instruct the Drug Enforcement Agency to change how it classifies cannabis, release the monopoly on cultivation for research purposes, and immediately allow highly-regulated privately-funded medical marijuana production operations in the United States to enable safe and efficient cannabis drug development research.

Currently, medical researchers face onerous Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration, and National Institute on Drug Abuse bureaucratic hurdles to conducting research. Additionally, due to cannabis’ classification, all researchers must source their cannabis from the University of Mississippi – who holds a monopoly on producing the drug for federally-sanctioned research.    

The opioid epidemic that continues to grip veterans is yet another reason to ease the federal government’s outdated attitude toward America’s marijuana supply. The Trump administration should lead a new effort to combat opioid abuse, and it should include the elimination of barriers to medical research on cannabis. The result, potentially, could provide a non-addictive solution to the most common debilitating conditions our veterans— and others in society— face, including chronic pain, PTSD, and TBI.  

For nearly 90 years, the federal government has deliberately hindered medical research into therapeutic aspects of cannabis, and veterans struggling with PTSD and TBI today are suffering because of this misguided policy. Cannabis, which has been used by humans for food, oil, textiles, medicine, and religious purposes since at least 6,000 BCE, has suffered an image problem over the past century starting with America’s first drug czar Prohibition Agent Harry J. Anslinger’s race-baiting demonization of the drug during the Great Depression.

Today, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the U.S. persists in listing cannabis alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, as a Schedule I substance with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. By comparison, many of the highly addictive medications frequently prescribed to veterans are a direct pathway to the abuse of cocaine derivatives, methamphetamine, methadone, Demerol, oxycodone and, fentanyl that are classified as Schedule II drugs. These widely over-prescribed, powerful, and dangerous substances are currently fueling today’s opioid and heroin epidemics in America.

Cannabis’ Schedule I listing is disingenuous given the fact that the federal government cannot produce any research or evidence justifying its classification - which significantly hampers medical research into the therapeutic aspects of the drug. It’s a classic Catch-22.

The Legion is asking Congress to amend legislation to remove marijuana from Schedule I and reclassify it in a category that, at a minimum, will recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value.

A recent comprehensive study by the Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that there is, “conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective for the treatment” of chronic pain, reducing nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, and lowering spasticity in multiple sclerosis sufferers, that there is “moderate evidence” that cannabis is effective in treating sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain, and “limited evidence” that cannabis improves symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and creates better outcomes after traumatic brain injury.

We need to know more.  With 20 veterans committing suicide every day, we cannot afford to delay research into this promising potential solution.

To date, more than 28 states have legalized cannabis for the treatment of medical conditions, and this April, Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Darren Soto, D-Fla., introduced bipartisan legislation in the House to make marijuana a Schedule III drug – removing significant hurdles currently hindering medical research.  

With 90 percent of Americans supporting legalization of medical marijuana today, it is time for Congress to act so that scientists may conduct advanced research into cannabis and PTSD/TBI and enable the American people to have a fact-based adult discussion about the therapeutic value of cannabis. Inevitably, cannabis will become a federally endorsed medical treatment for pain, epilepsy and a variety of other disorders. The only question is will this administration lead? Our veterans suffering from PTSD and TBI lives depend on it.

Joe Plenzler is director of media relations for the American Legion National Headquarters, in Washington, D.C and a 20-year combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Lou Celli is director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion National Headquarters, in Washington, D.C., and a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army.

The American Legion, founded in 1919, is the Nation's’ largest wartime veteran service organization comprising 2.2 million members and 13,000 posts around the world.