A group that started with an online “buddy check” during the height of the COVID shutdown is taking a serious swing at the Veterans Administration's rules regulating medicinal pot.
The Veterans Action Council is a nationwide group of veterans seeking to challenge the federal prohibition against cannabis use in vets suffering from PTSD and other pain associated with their service. The VAC wants the VA to grant veterans fully funded access to medical marijuana.
VAC member Tony Landry says things took off with the group when they organized over Zoom to send a letter to help Sean Worsley get out of jail. Worsely is a disabled and decorated Iraqi War veteran suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury who possessed a valid MMJ card in his home state of Arizona, but was arrested in Alabama for possession in 2016. He was released on a plea agreement at the time, but his life began to spiral and last year he received a five-year prison sentence in Alabama.
Worsley was granted parole in October, after serving eight months in prison. The VAC letter may or may not have affected the outcome of that case, but the action galvanized the loose affiliation to set bigger goals in service of U.S. military veterans.
One of the main organizers of the group is Army veteran Ricardo Pereyda, a Tucson native who's been advocating for veterans' access to medical marijuana since 2013.
Pereyda survived several injuries in his six years of service, but came home disabled due to those sustained in Iraq. The VA prescribed a heavy drug regimen — a common theme for injured returning warriors — but he finally found relief in cannabis, which also helped him kick his alcohol use.
“The VA and the military told me to go find a hobby, and they gave me a full pension,” Pereyda says. “I could literally sit on my ass all day and just flick boogers at the wall if I wanted, [but] I can dedicate my entire focus and my energy to this because I don't have to worry about slaving at some fucked-up job while I'm doing it.”
The VAC has attracted many longtime cannabis activists, among them Michael Krawitz, who's based in Virginia.
“The bottom line of why we do what we do is because the major service organizations essentially dropped the ball,” says Krawitz. “If they were really representing us and representing our interests as veterans, we wouldn't have to be doing any of it. Not only would we not have to be doing it, but those that are would be getting paid to do it. They've drawn a line.”
Krawitz's odyssey with medical cannabis began in 1984, when he was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident while serving in the Air Force on the island of Guam. Throughout his recovery from injuries, Krawitz was given the usual cocktails of pain medication from the VA, and while the drug regimen worked initially, it wasn't long before stomach problems caused by opiates led him to try cannabis on a trip abroad.
He's since stuffed envelopes at a veterans outreach center in Nebraska, where vets affected by Agent Orange fought for benefits. He's worked with the Marijuana Policy Project. And in 2007, he co-founded Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access, taking his lobbying directly to the VA.
VMMA, which became Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, played a big role in the VA clarifying its position on medical cannabis in 2010. Before, vets who used the drug to deal with health issues faced the loss of benefits should they admit it to their military doctors in states with legal medical programs. Now vets in states with medical cannabis programs can admit to qualified cannabis use without fear of reprisal.
“Back in 2006 or 2007, if you had talked to any of these major service organizations about marijuana, just like the VA itself, they would shut you down, and just say, 'Oh, marijuana is illegal under federal law, I can't even talk about it,'” Krawitz says. “So having [success with the] VA at least got us the ability to talk about it.”
He added that working though MPP or NORML has helped, the levels of communication are not optimal, so “we're taking that shit back, we're gonna start talking for ourselves.”
A good chunk of the group's focus and energy has gone to laying a foundation for high-level lobbying for destigmatized access. Earlier this year, the VAC published its “2021 Green Paper: A Call to Action,” a white paper that lays out the case for ending the federal prohibition of medical cannabis.
The paper's executive summary takes issue with the VA's overprescription of opiates and other pharmaceutical drugs and calls on the VA to “fully recognize cannabis as a viable treatment option for U.S. veterans.”
“Multiple attempts have been made to resolve the inability of Veterans to incorporate cannabis into their official treatment plans,” the paper states. “Every attempt made to address our concerns has been sabotaged at the federal level. The VHA (Veterans Health Administration) must take action on this issue. Federal leadership in the executive and legislative branches of our government must understand the enormity of this situation.”
The paper also addresses the need to help vets who self-medicate and address the number of suicides, estimated at 22 per day, according to numbers provided by the VA to the VAC. Since 2001 and the advent of the Global War on Terror, an estimated 30,000 veterans have committed suicide, while 7,032 have died on the battlefield, according to a recent Department of Defense report.
The VAC also advocates for Department of Agriculture support of veterans growing cannabis both for research, and to someday stock VA-sponsored dispensaries.
Despite medical legalization in 36 states and four territories, and expanding adult-use recreational legalization that now reaches 18 states, two territories and the District of Columbia, veterans with MMJ cards in their own states face prosecution on a federal level in states where it is not legal, as well as stigmatization by the VA when they seek health care.
The VAC recently took its agenda to the office of Senator Mark Kelly, who in the run-up to the 2020 election voiced support for legalization on a federal level, although his support for federal legalization has recently seemed to cool. The group met last week with former Senator Ron Barber, Kelly's southern Arizona director, and Katie Campbell, his legislative director.
“What we agreed to do was to take the input back to the senator for his consideration,” Barber said of the conversation. “I am specifically focusing on the bill by Senator Schatz.”
That bill is Hawaii Senator Mark Schatz's Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, which was introduced earlier this year. It would allow the VA to legally prescribe marijuana to veterans in states where it is legal. The bill is cosponsored by Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.). There is a companion bill in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Dave Joyce (R-Ohio).
Barber actually worked with Pereyda when Barber was briefly a Congressman and Pereyda was a veterans' advocate at the University of Arizona between 2010 and 2013. (Barber was elected to the seat vacated by Gabrielle Giffords when she was shot in 2011.)
“Ricardo is a strong advocate, and I really appreciate how he pursues this,” Barber said. “I really understand from a personal level what some of these guys are going through now. I never went to war, but I was shot the same day [as Giffords]. I dealt with PTSD and still do.”
What might come from the meeting with Kelly's representatives is to be determined. But the advocacy work of VAC continues.
For more information about the Veterans Action Council or to get involved, go to www.veteransactioncouncil.com.