Photo courtesy of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy

Texas vets call for legal medical marijuana, end to painkiller dependence

Veterans Day march in rally kicks off Operation Trapped, push to legalize medical pot in Texas in 2017

United States military veterans rallied at a parade in Texas on Wednesday for the right to treat their war wounds, both physical and psychological, with medical marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law and is strictly limited in Texas.

The Veterans Day protest came a day after the U.S. Senate approved a measure allowing federal Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe medical marijuana in the District of Columbia and the 23 states that have legalized the medicinal use of cannabis.

Texas allows the use of only a nonpsychoactive marijuana oil product for the treatment of severe seizures. The veterans, affiliated with pro-legalization group Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy (TRMP), want much wider legalization, saying it could help veterans with long-term pain and psychological disorders. Texas has 1.7 million veterans, the second most number in the country, after California. 

Dozens of former service members — from the Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy — marched to press their call for change in Austin’s Veteran’s Day parade Wednesday. They then gathered at the Vietnam War memorial near the statehouse to announce the launch of Operation Trapped, a campaign to raise awareness of veterans’ hope for access to medical marijuana, both edible and smokable. 

Texas veterans are calling on their state to legalize medical marijuana, saying they feel trapped by a reliance on traditional painkillers, which can be addictive and deadly. (Image: “Trapped” by Malachi Muncy for TRMP)

“We feel trapped by pharmaceutical drugs, and we want access to medical marijuana instead of addictive painkillers and psychotropic medication,” said TRMP spokesman Dave Bass, 59, a retired Army major and native Texan who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005.

For its awareness campaign, Operation Trapped seeks to collect from veterans 1,000 pill bottles that once contained painkillers, antidepressants or mood stabilizers — each containing a slip of paper with the veteran’s name, rank and dates of service. TRMP plans to then put toy soldiers in the bottles and present them to lawmakers at the start of the Texas state legislature’s next session, starting in January 2017. The bottles are meant to show how many veterans feel trapped by the treatment options available to them in their state.

“We don’t want to be treated as criminals,” Bass said. “We have jobs, we pay taxes, some of us go to universities on the GI Bill, yet Texas makes us into criminals because we choose to use medical cannabis.”

A Texas medical marijuana bill introduced this year failed in May in the state’s House Public Health Committee, despite hours of testimony from people who said marijuana has helped alleviate their illnesses.

The Texas push comes amid nationwide changes in marijuana laws, with Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Washington, D.C., legalizing recreational possession over the last two years. In New York, veterans started a billboard campaign on Tuesday to have the plant approved for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder when medical marijuana dispensaries open in 2016. 

Research has shown that medical marijuana can help soothe the side effects of cancer treatment and relieve pain. The National Institutes of Health recognizes several uses for marijuana and its extracts, and another study by the agency said marijuana shows promise in treating PTSD.

Bass said many veterans in Texas use medical marijuana even though it’s illegal. Smoking or eating it helps alleviate chronic pain caused by injuries suffered in battle, he said, adding that it can also help fight the recurring nightmares some veterans endure.

The Department of Veterans Affairs expresses skepticism about the usefulness of marijuana to treat PTSD and said that in 2014 about 40,000 veterans showed symptoms of what it called cannabis use disorder, which it said can involve dependence on the drug.

Bass said that many troops used marijuana in Iraq and Afghanistan to help manage the stress of combat. “Soldiers would use hashish to try to relax between battles and combat operations because it would relax them and help them get some sleep,” he said. “Our medical doctors only gave us Ambien to sleep and narcotic pain medication. You wouldn’t believe the number of pills I came home with.” 

He added that service members didn’t tell doctors about smoking cannabis, fearing disciplinary action.

Unlike painkillers and antidepressants, which can be used to commit suicide and have been linked to overdoses, cannabis has never been known to cause a fatal overdose. The VA, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it has found that veterans suffer almost twice the rate of fatal painkiller overdoses than nonvets. And getting those medications has become harder, after new Drug Enforcement Agency rule in 2014 restricted prescriptions in an effort to curb painkiller addiction, The Washington Post reported.

Bass said medical marijuana has helped him far more than the narcotic painkillers and psychopharmacological drugs like VA doctors prescribe. Some of these pills come with severe side effects, he said.

“I was having terrible nightmares” after returning from Iraq, he said. “I had angry outbursts, paranoia. I was very isolated. I didn’t want to be out with people. And then I took the psychopharmacological medication, and I felt nonfunctional. I felt like a zombie. I had suicidal ideation. Then when I switched to Prozac, it caused impotence. When I started using medical-grade cannabis, I didn’t have nightmares anymore. I wasn’t paranoid. I felt very comfortable. I felt like a normal person.”

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