The Department of Veterans Affairs brought the vexing issue of veteran suicide to the forefront three years ago with a seminal study that showed more than 20 veterans a day die by their own hand. Yet despite the VA’s best efforts, and the millions of dollars that they and the current administration have been throwing at the problem, not only has there been no improvement in the situation, the problem has gotten worse.
As a retired Marine Corps officer, a board member of a veteran nonprofit, and the founder of a profitable business that serves the veteran community, I confront the suicide epidemic on a daily basis. It’s personal as well. I, like most veterans today, can now say that I know more comrades who have taken their own lives after serving in combat than I know who died in battle.
Last year, Jim Turner, a Marine colonel with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan and who I went through initial training with as a young lieutenant, became the latest on this macabre list when he fatally shot himself, while wearing his dress blue uniform, on the property of the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs in Florida. Jim’s final act was as much a protest as it was anything else. Ineffective treatment for PTSD and an over-reliance on prescription medication were at the core of that protest.
I am not a VA basher, but if there is one thing that most vets can agree on, it’s that the VA relies far too heavily on treating the maladies that afflict vets with prescription medication. The VA is one of the world’s largest provider of opiates, benzodiazepines and SSRIs, and many veterans — including me — have come to the conclusion that this may be a significant contributor to the astronomical suicide rate in our community. According to a 2017 study by the American Legion, a large majority of us now believe that the time has come for the VA to conduct a serious study into the efficacy of cannabis as an alternative to the standard cocktail of pharmaceuticals that doesn’t seem to be working.
Coming to that conclusion was not an easy path for someone like myself. I joined the military in 1980, at a time when drug use, and in particular the use of marijuana, was rampant. It clearly was a detriment to good order and discipline, and it posed serious safety risks. In May 1981, a tragic mishap aboard the USS Nimitz destroyed three fighters, damaged 16 aircraft and killed 14 sailors. The ensuing investigation cited marijuana as the causal factor and became the catalyst that led the Department of Defense to institute an all-ranks urinalysis screening program.
The effect of the policy was immediate, and in my opinion, was the single most important policy change that the Pentagon implemented in its effort to professionalize what was only then becoming an all-volunteer force. By the time I finished college and returned to the military in 1988, it had become a radically transformed force capable of performing superbly — and did so a few years later during Desert Storm. But while a ban on cannabis makes perfect sense to me when it comes to the active forces, I have slowly come to the conclusion that this logic no longer applies once these men and women take off the uniform.
The most well-known medicinal compound found in cannabis is CBD. CBD is found in both marijuana and hemp, with the significant difference being that industrial hemp is a federally legal agricultural product that is grown in compliance with the 2018 congressional farm bill.
Industrial hemp is not marijuana, but it is a type of cannabis that must contain less than 0.3% THC. Unlike THC, the well-known, “high” producing compound that is prevalent in marijuana, CBD derived from hemp is non-psychoactive and provides the user with no associated high.
The VA has resisted studying cannabis using the guise that marijuana is illegal under federal law. But this does not apply to CBD and other medicinal compounds derived from industrial hemp. The problem is that very few people understand the nuanced difference between marijuana and industrial hemp. The VA takes advantage of this lack of understanding by lumping industrial hemp, which is federally legal, with medical marijuana, which is not.
Congress can easily change this by passing the VA Medicinal Hemp Research Act, which will compel the VA to comply with the wishes of the veterans they are charged to serve. There may be value in studying THC at a later date, but for now, let’s at least mandate a study on what is federally legal and can be purchased at Walgreens or a GNC. If we truly want to honor our veterans and thank them for their service and sacrifice, wouldn’t passage of the VA Medicinal Hemp Research Act be a significant means of doing so?
Steve Danyluk (retired Lt. Col., U.S. Marine Corps) served 30 years, both as an enlisted man and officer in the U.S. military, with two combat tours and one stateside tour working for severely injured service members and their families at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was there that Danyluk noticed an overreliance on opiates and psychotropic medications in post-traumatic care that he feared would lead to long-term issues for our nation’s veterans. Danyluk founded Warfighter Hemp as a means to provide a healthier alternative to the men and women he believes deserve better. Half of Warfighter Hemp profits go back to veteran charities.
 – New VA study finds 20 veterans commit suicide each day. https://www.militarytimes.com/veterans/2016/07/07/new-va-study-finds-20-veterans-commit-suicide-each-day/
 – Survey shows veteran households support research of medical cannabis.
 – Jet crashes into deck of a carrier.
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