OPINION: Increasing Access to Medical Cannabis for Veterans can be a Matter of Life and Death

  ·  L.A. Weekly   ·  Link to Article

The online cannabis directory Weedmaps recently announced that they were going to stop accepting advertising from unlicensed cannabis businesses. Come January, once this has been fully implemented, I know veterans like myself and those I represent will still be faced with a lack of access to medical cannabis and will have to turn to other outlets like Google, Yelp and Craigslist to find unlicensed shops. I wish we didn’t have to go to illicit businesses, but local California politicians are turning their backs on us.

Medical patients and advocates have always been the driving force for cannabis legalization in California, but medical collectives that provide low-cost or free medical cannabis to low-income patients have been forced to close their doors in response to heavy tax burdens created by legalization. This was a problem inherent in Proposition 64, and an oversight that drove myself and veterans like me not to support the measure although we vehemently advocate for legalization. Now, despite legalization, medical cannabis is actually harder for patients and veterans alike to access. Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 34 (Wiener), and state Treasurer Fiona Ma also championed legislation to give veterans better access to cannabis. These bills serve as an important step forward to restore patient access, but in order to really expand access, the governor and Treasurer Ma ultimately need local governments to cooperate.

At best, local governments are artificially capping the licenses available for cannabis retailers. But at worst, which is the case for 76 percent of cities and counties, local jurisdictions are outright banning cannabis retail licensing. This means that medical patients across the state lack access to life-saving treatments. This hits hard for veterans, who have been shut out of the market as both retailers and as patients. It is even worse when you consider how many jurisdictions are attempting to ban home cultivation, as well as the increasing number of retirement communities, apartment complexes and other lodging associations  taking the same stance.

Cannabis has been proven to help with PTSD, cancer and chronic pain, and has statistically lowered the suicide rate in states where it is legal. Despite this, veterans are continually shut out of the cannabis market and pushed toward opiates and other drugs that have negative, addictive effects on our mental and physical health. The VA estimates that 20 veterans commit suicide every day. We also suffer from inflated rates of depression and other disorders, namely 1 out of 5 veterans suffers from PTSD. Studies found that cannabis use is correlated with a higher ability to cope with stressful life events, especially among young men, and can help treat pain. VA physicians are unfortunately still prohibited from prescribing cannabis to veterans. In fact, no doctor in California can prescribe cannabis without fear of losing their medical license, thanks to its status as a Schedule 1 narcotic.

The positive effects of cannabis on mental health encouraged thousands of veterans to show up to the polls and vote in favor of Prop. 64 and the legalization of cannabis. But it was a bait and switch. And we are left with less access now than before legalization. Less. Our local leaders are failing to open markets and the state leaders are failing to pressure their local counterparts. We don’t have time to wait. Again, 20 veterans die by suicide each day. Each day our politicians fail to open legal access they fail veterans.

The bait was that legal access would help veterans and improve access. The switch: Only 23 percent of our counties and cities allow cannabis retail, and licensed retailers are often few and far between in most parts of California. The rest of the cities and counties have implemented arbitrary caps on licenses that are not even close to meeting the demand in the market. Consequently, veterans across the state are struggling to access the cannabis we desperately need.

A study by the American Legion found that 82 percent of veterans support the use of cannabis as treatment for physical and mental conditions. We have to pay out of pocket to treat conditions which resulted from our service, and that’s a hard reality to face, but finding a licensed cannabis retailer only makes it harder. Veterans and other medical patients often have to drive long distances to obtain their cannabis treatments, especially those living in rural areas.

Local bans and restrictive licensing caps on retail cannabis also make it difficult for veterans to start businesses in the cannabis industry. Many of us have been out-bid by monopolistic business owners, priced out by artificial demand created from arbitrary licensing caps, or shut out of the legal market entirely because of outright bans put in place by elected officials. Many veterans who return from service are attracted to work in this burgeoning industry, but more often than not, we’re unable to obtain a license to operate legally.

Local government officials who have continually ignored the will of their constituents who voted in favor of Prop. 64, who have ignored the will of veterans who put our lives on the line for this country — this is your wake-up call. Veterans are dying every day from suicide, and elected officials should have all hands on deck making every treatment option available to us. We need to lift local bans on retail licenses, raise restrictive licensing caps that keep new businesses out of the market, and we need to make sure patients, even in rural areas, have access to important cannabis treatments. We also need to make the right to cultivate cannabis at home a basic patient right for all residents in the state, regardless of where they live.