Coming Home: Congress is trying to legalize medical cannabis for returning soldiers – in order to save their lives

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THREE-QUARTERS of all US military deaths occur stateside – not on faraway battlefields we see depicted in movies. One film, “Coming Home,” the 1978 award-winning portrayal of wounded and returning Vietnam soldiers played by Bruce Dern and Jon Voight, is a notable exception. Through their stories we see how the violence of war translates into pain in its many forms on the home front: the trauma, bitterness, addiction, and even suicide – perhaps best summed up in this rage-fueled line delivered by Dern’s character to his wife played by Jane Fonda:

I do not belong in this house – and they’re saying I don’t belong over there.

This profound sense of pain and loss of self was recognized by Congress this month in a bill introduced in the House by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Dave Joyce (R-OH). The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, is grounded on the following rationale: that chronic pain affects 60% of the veterans returning from the Middle East; the treatment of choice, opioids, has given rise to an epidemic of death with soldiers dying at twice the rate of the general population; and, medical cannabis (MC) has been shown to both treat chronic pain & PTSD and lower opioid overdose deaths by 25% in states where it’s permitted.

Accordingly, the bill would allow veterans to use MC if recommended by a doctor in one of the 36 states that have legalized it (but not in the other 14). And physicians with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (the VA) would be allowed for the first time to issue a recommendation/prescription for MC use.

The mischief the House bill is trying to remedy is a politically motivated law, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which places cannabis – alongside the likes of heroin and cocaine – in the most restricted category of illegal use on the basis that it has a high potential for abuse and offers no medical benefit.

We now concede that to be nonsense; in fact, the science community even said so back then. But cannabis was nonetheless put there by the Nixon administration for the ugliest of reasons according to this stunning admission by then White House advisor John Ehrlichman in a 1994 interview with Harper’s Magazine:

You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Nevertheless, and even though veterans swear by it, the VA continues to cite this illicit law as their reason for not allowing its members to be helped by MC. In fact, they even go a step further and prohibit current service members from even discussing MC with VA doctors, upon pain of losing their benefits when they leave the military.

The following chart prepared by the Congressional Research Service shows all active-duty military deaths from 2006 – 2019. Their report says 13,068 service members have died during that time – often violently – in non-battlefield (NON-OCO) circumstances. Crucially, the vast majority (93%) of these deaths take place in the United States – after coming home.

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