Why Aren’t More Candidates Listening To Veterans On Medical Marijuana?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Bill Britt, 54, who suffers from epileptic seizures and leg pain from a childhood case of polio, smokes medical marijuana at his home in Long Beach, Calif.

David Bass, who served 21 years in the U.S. Army, says he tried medical marijuana in a moment of desperation. He suffered from chronic pain and PTSD as a result of multiple active duty tours in Iraq, and his doctor at the VA gave him intense narcotic and psychotropic drugs.

“I was getting really addicted to Hydrocodone,” he told ThinkProgress. “And my other drugs gave me side effects like suicidal ideation, sexual impotence, and just left me feeling really drugged out like a zombie. When I talked to the doctor at the VA hospital, he said I had to keep taking them for at least two years. But I just couldn’t see going through that for two more years before even discussing getting off them.”

Bass, now a high school literature and creative writing teacher, says since switching to marijuana to treat his mental and physical ailments, his life has radically improved. But he still has to purchase it on the black market, as Texas remains one of many states where any cannabis consumption remains “totally illegal and a serious crime.”

Now, Bass is leading an advocacy effort to pressure Texas and the federal government to allow safe, legal access to medical marijuana, which he calls “a safer alternative” to the pharmaceutical drugs veterans are often prescribed for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, pain, and other common injuries of modern warfare.

On Wednesday in Austin, Texas, he’ll be joined by dozens of Army, Navy and Air Force veterans marching in the city’s Veterans Day parade — the first time the parade has ever included a pro-medical cannabis message. Yet the action in Texas is just one of many across the country organized by veterans calling for wider acceptance of the health benefits of cannabis. While some are pressuring their state legislatures to act, others are pressuring the current candidates for president to take a stand on the issue.

In Iowa, Gulf War veteran Shelly Van Winkle — who is also a registered “cannabis nurse” — has been grilling GOP candidates on their views on medical marijuana.

In a tense exchange with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Van Winkle pointed out that the system he supports would leave medical marijuana doctors and patients vulnerable to a federal crackdown. This is because unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Christie and most other candidates for president do not favor removing marijuana from the federal government’s Schedule 1 category of drugs that are purported to have no medically accepted use and a high potential for abuse. Currently, marijuana is in the same legal category as heroin and cocaine.

Watch Christie’s response here:

This status quo is fine with other GOP candidates for president, including Carly Fiorina, who told Iowa voters incorrect information about cannabis’ risks and potential for addiction.

In assessing the current slate of presidential candidates, Bass said he thinks Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) “speaks eloquently and logically” about marijuana legalization.

Earlier this year, Paul co-sponsored the CARERS Act, which would permit the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to recommend cannabis, allow people in possession of medical cannabis to cross state lines without penalty, and make it easier for patients to use non-cash forms of payment at medical dispensaries.

Bass also said he is “really happy” Sanders recently endorsed allowing states to fully legalize marijuana, and said of Clinton’s recent policy announcement that would ease some restrictions but not allow recreational use: “We’ll take that. She wants to put it in Schedule 2, so we can at least do more research. It’s better than Schedule 1.”

And when ThinkProgress asked neurosurgeon and recent Republican frontrunner Dr. Ben Carson about the issue during his recent tour across Florida, he replied by calling medical marijuana “excellent.”

“It works very well for a lot of seizure patients,” he said. “But I think general legalization of marijuana is a terrible idea.”

But Bass is less optimistic about the rest of the field, saying, “The others are just completely unreasonable and buy into the ‘Reefer Madness’ propaganda.” He told ThinkProgress that if he ever gets a chance to confront these anti-legalization candidates, he would tell them: “Texas veterans are law-abiding, tax-paying, patriotic people who choose use to cannabis as an alternative to dangerous and addictive prescription drugs. I would like for them to have to tell veterans why they believe that pharmaceutical drugs like opiods and narcotics with severe side effects are better than cannabis.”