2016 can be the year the tide is turned in the United States against the irrational, wasteful, and frankly harmful prohibition on cannabis. Five states, all of which currently have medical use laws, are voting on adult use (aka “recreational” cannabis) – California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Maine. Four other states – Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, and Florida – are voting on medical use. If a majority of the measures are successful, it will substantially increase access to what is proving to be one of the most medically and socially beneficial substances known to humankind. This, in turn, will expedite eventual federal legalization. However, if the votes go the other way, we’ll continue down the path we’ve been stuck on since the earliest explicit prohibitions on cannabis were codified in the 1930s – further unnecessary incarcerations, higher levels of opiate abuse, and more veterans suffering. This path, borne of misinformed policy, greed and institutionalized racism, creates a financial drain on society as a whole. Worse yet, it drives a collective suffering, as mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses and friends – directly or indirectly – become victims of the prohibition of cannabis.
I am a West Point and Harvard educated combat veteran of the Iraq War. In October of 2007, while an Army Lieutenant in Iraq, I was on the wrong side of a particularly nasty type of roadside bomb – an explosively formed penetrator. My left leg was basically destroyed below the knee, and my abdomen was peppered with searing chunks of copper, leaving my intestines, stomach, liver and bladder full of shrapnel wounds. Had I suffered these injuries a few years earlier, or in any other conflict in our history, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story.
While I am alive today, thanks largely to advancements in modern medicine, one thing I did not benefit from was the medical establishment’s overreliance on opiate pain medications, which peaked right around the time of my injury. For nearly three years after the blast, as doctors tried desperately to save my foot and lower leg, my days began about an hour before actually getting up. I would pop 20-40mg of Methadone (the preferred painkiller for service members at the time, due to its low cost and length of action) and then go back to sleep. It was only after the drugs had taken effect that I could bring myself to get out of bed.
Opiates are considered a sedative drug, but my system became so dependent on them that instead of sedating me, they became a necessary ingredient for normal function. If I missed a dose, there would be tremendous discomfort, not only from the injuries, but also from my system’s lack of the drug. After 35 months, dozens of surgeries, and thousands of pills, I was able to finally leave the drugs behind by electing to amputate my leg below the knee.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I personally know many other wounded service members who are still stuck in the grip of their opiate dependence/addiction, all while staggering under the weight of emotional burdens that defy description. A few of these selfless heroes are no longer with us, and I feel their deaths can be attributed to two wars – the War on Terror, and as an unintended consequence of the War on Drugs, with it’s fallacious stance on cannabis as a menace instead of a medicine.
The medical benefits of cannabis specific to veterans include anxiety and PTSD relief, pain management, inflammation reduction, circulation enhancement, appetite stimulation, and improved sleep. There are also neuroprotective effects that studies show may aid in recovery from one of the hallmark conditions of our recent wars – traumatic brain injury. The sad reality is that many of our servicemen and women are struggling, in some cases fighting for their lives, and the current therapies are falling short. We know this because the statistics on depression, self-harm and suicide in our community are appallingly high, even when all known interventions are employed.
And here’s the best part: we now know that a patient doesn’t even have to get “high” to receive most of the health benefits listed above, as almost all of the 110+ components of cannabis have absolutely no psychoactive effects. One of the most promising components, Cannabidiol (CBD), actually counters the mind-altering nature of THC, while delivering potent therapeutic effects.
Beyond these individual benefits, access to legal cannabis brings with it a host of social good. According to a 2015 RAND study, in states where patients have access to cannabis, the rates of opiate addiction and overdose are plummeting. And one needs to look no further than Colorado for a glimpse of how a “yes” vote can directly impact public coffers. The state collected $76 million in tax revenue, licenses and fees in 2014, its first year of legalized adult use. That number increased to $135 million in 2015, and is projected to surpass $160 million this year. At the same time, taxpayers see savings due to a reduction of people in prison for non-violent, cannabis-related offenses. Set aside the medical imperative for a moment and think about what that kind of money could do for the communities in your state. Everyone benefits when there’s an opportunity to pour resources into schools, parks and public works.
It’s been almost 80 years, and science has roundly proven that the Depression-era hysteria was all for naught. If our progress towards legalization is further delayed, we will be refusing the countless benefits of Cannabis, while doubling down on the punitive incarceration of tax-paying citizens, accepting soaring rates of opiate abuse and overdose, and turning a deaf ear to the needless suffering of our vets.
Thanking a veteran for their service is easy; registering to vote and then showing up to the polls to help improve the quality of their life isn’t a big ask either. Voting for something that makes our communities safer, brings revenue to the state, and eases the pain of cancer patients and wounded Veterans is an obvious “yes”.
“Ryan Miller was medically retired as a Captain from the US Army in 2012 due to severe wounds received in Iraq. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the founder and CEO of Ceresta, a labor market platform for the cannabis industry.”