Don't just thank a veteran, tell the VA to research marijuana

Matt Saintsing
April 20, 2018 - 4:30 pm

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“Hey, thank you for your service.”

 It’s something nearly every veteran has heard on probably more than one occasion. The phrase is deemed universally cringe-worthy by many  of us who used to wear the uniform, so much in fact, that we tend to make fun of it ourselves. 

But on this 4/20, The American Legion has a message for anyone who really wants to thank veterans for our service: Pick-up the phone, call your elected officials and tell them to support the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act

“One of my favorite authors once said in a democracy, you have to be a player,” said Joe Plenzler, a retired Marine and spokesperson for the American Legion’s National Headquarters at the National Cannabis Festival Policy Summit in Washington, D.C., Friday.

“If you value veterans, and I hope you do, it’s easy to say ‘hey, thank you for your service,’ but if you really want to thank them, call your elected officials and ask them to pass the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018.”

“That’s one way to thank a veteran for their service.”  

Plenzler was referring to H.R. 5520 introduced this week by Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn), the ranking minority-party member of the committee, that would clarify the VA’s authority to research what medical benefits cannabis has for veterans, if any.

Plenzler added that such research could have immense benefits for all patients across the country, not just the veteran community, since VA is the largest integrated medical system in the country.

But, he wasn’t the only one calling for such action.

The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act would “force the VA Secretary to add efficacy into the budget and make sure they are studying cannabis, and report back to Congress each year for five years,” said U.S. Marine Corps veteran and marijuana advocate Tanganyika Daniel, who also is the founder of Jay Green, a cannabis-infused skincare line for men and women.

A third veteran on stage shared his personal experience with marijuana and encouraged others that pot progress is not only possible, but inevitable.

“Cannabis, for me, has been a lifesaving medicine,” said Jose Belen, a U.S. Army field artillery veteran who took part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq serving 14 consecutive months in combat.

“I arrived in Iraq at 20-years-old and with orders to secure Baghdad, we saw plenty of combat.”

Belen was honorably discharged in 2005 and began his thirteen-and-a-half year battle with post-traumatic stress.

“I was given the prescriptions by the VA, and unfortunately with each prescription I got closer to suicide, not farther away,” he continued.

Electing to use cannabis, which the Drug Enforcement Agency classifies as a schedule I drug, Belen had to go to the black market. As a consequence, he used marijuana intermittently. In other words, he used the medicine he credits with saving his life sporadically, fearing he was risking his corporate job.

In 2016, he switched to marijuana solely. “From that point I was using cannabis, and here I am today. I always tell people cannabis made me find my smile again,” Belen said.

A multitude of studies has found that states with medical marijuana programs see a drop in opioid use and abuse, a finding that translates to hundreds of lives saved in each state. Veterans are twice as likely than non-vets to die from an accidental opioid overdose. That's because opioids are commonly comonly prescribed to treat chronic pain, an ailment that plagues 60 percent of the vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Plenzler echoed that sentiment saying the Legion has seen "veterans on every drug that killed Anna Nicole Smith."