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Think about that number for a moment. Sadly, a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) finds that 22 American lives are taken every single day as a result of military conflicts overseas. Except these men and women aren't dying on the battlefield, they are dying right here on American soil. From the tiniest towns to the biggest cities, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters are taking their own lives to end the pain and suffering.
Let's put things into perspective. On average, there were close to 4,150 American troops killed during each year of the Vietnam War. In comparison, the VA estimates nearly twice as many veterans killed themselves in 2010, as a direct result of their military service. Most of these forgotten heroes are over 50 years old. Nearly all suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or have a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The VA has struggled with these problems for over a decade. So, what if there was a medicine that could save just one of these American heroes. What if we could save more than that?
Findings of research released in January 2012 found the passage of medical marijuana laws are associated with a nearly 5% reduction in suicide rates among veterans of all ages. Similarly, a new study from UCLA found that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, leads to a higher survival rate among victims of TBI's. Then there's the recent research to suggest cannabis can be used to lessen the dependence on painkillers, another undisputed factor in suicide rates among veterans.
True story. Just the other day, I got a text message from a veteran who completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a decorated soldier who had been to the VA and tried every option they provided, but nothing worked. This young man in his early 30’s was desperate to find a way out. Like all the others, I asked him to make one simple promise: not to do anything drastic for at least 24 hours. During that time, I set him up with a support system made up of several fellow veterans who were willing to lend an ear and we explained how medical marijuana might help. By the end of the weekend, my friends were able to set him up with a volunteer project helping other vets, which took his mind off things long enough to get him to a doctor and get him some medical cannabis. He is currently using it to help ease PTSD and curb thoughts of suicide, and is now doing well. This is one of three veterans who’ve desperately reached out to me, just in the past three weeks. I have helped every single one of them turn their lives around with medical cannabis.
Research unequivocally shows that cannabis should be considered a first-line defense against PTSD and anxiety disorders, yet out of 35 states where medical marijuana is legal, only 10 allow for use by patients with PTSD. That leaves 40 states where veterans can still go to jail for using cannabis, regardless of their reasoning for doing so. Something is wrong with this picture.
The U.S. recently declared war on ISIS for taking the lives of two American hostages. Yet today, on this day designed specifically to honor veterans, another 22 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines will choose to end their own lives because our country has abandoned them in a time of need. When will the military declare a War on Suicide?
If we truly want to honor the sacrifices of men and women in uniform, we owe it to them to find out if medical marijuana can ease their suffering. We need to fight for researchers like Dr. Sue Sisley, who gained approval to conduct a study on the efficacy of medical marijuana for Veterans with PTSD, only to lose her job over the issue. We need to fight to make sure Veterans with TBI's, chronic pain, PTSD and other war wounds have the option to choose marijuana over addictive pharmaceuticals. We need to fight to make sure every single Veteran that we come in contact with knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not alone. Only then can we truly celebrate on Veterans Day, because unless we make some serious changes soon, we will continue to lose 22 beloved American heroes each and every day.
Patrick Seifert is founder of Rainier Xpress, a medical cannabis collective that serves approximately 5,000 veterans. He is an active ASA member and serves on the steering committee of ASA-Washington. Patrick has proven to be a fierce champion for patients’ rights, logging dozens of hours at the Capitol and beyond, educating policymakers about veterans issues and how to improve Washington’s medical marijuana law.