Faced with stark numbers of brain trauma and psychological distress cases among combat veterans, the nation’s largest active veteran’s organization has thrown its weight behind the growing movement to push for relaxing federal restrictions on marijuana.
The American Legion, the nation’s largest wartime veterans organization, took a position on medical marijuana for the first time last week. At its national convention, it passed a resolution calling on Congress to amend its laws to “at a minimum … recognize cannabis as a drug with potential medical value”.
Marijuana is currently classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule 1 drug, putting it alongside drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The designation, which the DEA reaffirmed last month, means that the federal government officially believes there is no “accepted medical use” for the drug.
“It’s a tool in a toolbox,” said William Detweiler, who serves as the chairman of the American Legion’s traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) committee and who is a past national commander of the organization. “We’re not advocating the use of marijuana or any other drugs,” but he said veterans “have a right to anything that may help them”.
The American Legion’s new policy platform comes amid greater medical understanding and scientific research in recent years on the causes and consequences of TBI and PTSD.
In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the incidence of PTSD and TBI among veterans has rapidly increased, leading to a national crisis that has also coincided with alarming rates of depression and suicide.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 22% of combat casualties from the post-9/11 conflicts are brain injuries, compared to 12% for Vietnam veterans. It also estimates that between 60% and 80% of combat vets who have blast injuries may also have brain trauma.
A large and growing body of literature suggests that cannabis can be an effective medical treatment to alleviate the worst effects of PTSD. About two decades ago, scientists discovered the presence of an endocannabinoid system in the brain which responds to some 60 chemicals that are found in marijuana.
Detweiler said he and the organization as a whole were convinced of the case for allowing more study into the possible effects of treating PTSD and TBI with marijuana after coming into contact with the work or Dr Sue Sisley, a medical researcher who has pushed to reform cannabis laws so she can study the potential of cannabis for treating PTSD.
Detweiler admitted that he was initially concerned about how the push into the terrain of medical marijuana would be received, but he said those concerns were quickly allayed once people heard the case on its merits. “I’ve heard nothing but good things” from fellow Legion members and combat vets who urged the organization to consider taking a position on medical cannabis, he said.
In April, after seven years of trying to get the necessary federal approval, Sisley and other researchers were given a DEA license to begin a private study into the correlation between cannabis and PTSD, although the DEA’s official position remains that there is no medical value for the drug. The study is the first of its kind, involving a randomized, controlled study that uses actual marijuana plants, rather than oils or synthetic forms of the drug.
To that end, the American Legion’s resolution also calls on the DEA to “license privately-funded medical marijuana production operations in the United States to enable safe and efficient cannabis drug development research”.
“I consider this a major breakthrough for such a conservative veterans organization,” Sisley said after the vote. “Suddenly the American Legion has a tangible policy statement on cannabis that will allow them to lobby and add this to their core legislative agenda. The organization has a massive amount of influence at all levels.”
According to a major survey released in July by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of the nation’s largest veterans empowerment groups, some 68% of combat veterans support medical marijuana legalization in their states, while a further 75% said that the Department of Veterans Affairs ought to allow medical cannabis as a treatment option.
Marijuana reform groups have hailed the American Legion’s decision.
“Medical marijuana has been found to be a safe and effective treatment for PTSD, chronic pain, and other conditions that often affect veterans,” said Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Those who serve in our nation’s armed forces deserve access to every medical treatment option that could help them live a healthier and more productive life.”