Two weeks ago, on March 14, a volunteer group calling itself the Veterans Action Council (VAC) asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to remove cannabis from the federal government’s Schedule I and II lists of controlled substances. Their mission: to enable vets to benefit from the plant’s medicinal properties.
“Removing cannabis from schedule 1 & 2 will solve many serious issues facing Americans,” the Council wrote. Among the serious issues it cited — which may not be widely known – are veterans being kicked out of federal housing or removed from transplant lists.
Then there’s the issue of suicide, a major problem among returning veterans, for whom the Veterans Administration (VA) estimated 6,261 veteran suicide deaths in 2021.
On March 10, days before the VAC’s letter, the VA responded to this tragic issue with a new interim rule, effective April 11. The rule will create grants of up to $750,000 (per recipient group per fiscal year) for anti-suicide programs run by veterans’ and other nonprofit organizations. “This congressionally-enacted grant program will allow us to work with local providers to offer Veterans the support they deserve,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced in April.
That support, however, won’t include cannabis because of the plant’s controlled-substance status under federal law. In short, that $174 million in grants will not be available for programs and treatments connected to plant-based remedies. In addition, the VA still will not refer or pay for cannabis medicines because the FDA has yet to regulate medicines containing THC and/or CBD.
All these cannabis exemptions ignore anecdotal reports and research about these treatments’ effectiveness for PTSD and the often-overwhelming physical issues veterans suffer which may lead to suicide.
A study in the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience in 2019 reported, for instance, on “indications that cannabis or some of its components, primarily THC and CBD [that] diminish particular symptoms of PTSD.” The report acknowledged that its study was small but did show that 5 mg of THC twice daily enhanced sleep quality and reduced the frequency of nightmares – conditions frequently reported in PTSD sufferers. More research is needed, the study’s authors emphasized.
Certainly the sharp increase in medicinal cannabis-card applications in the states legal for them speaks to patients wanting to try cannabis medicines for depression, anxiety, physical pain and more.
This is the kind of information that compels Tim Tofaute to speak up for veterans using cannabis. He’s security and operations director for California-based Operational Security Solutions, which among other tasks performs “cash in transit” assignments for dispensaries. He’s also a former ten-year Navy Seal and government intelligence contractor who has seen and experienced plenty of physical trauma.
Above all, military operations can cause severe mental stress, Tofaute emphasizes. “We had an individual from Seal Team who committed suicide,” he says, “and it came as a surprise to a lot of people in the community because on the surface you think everything’s all copacetic.”
Yet because special operations is a “different animal” from traditional military service, “There are some dynamics that go unspoken,” he says. “You’re never going to tell anyone that you’re struggling,” lest the operation leader remove you.
Speaking of cannabis as a potential remedy, “I think it boils down to treatments and some of the more traditional treatments we see for PTSD, anxiety and even the aches and pains [you suffer] when you’re blown out of a vehicle,” Tofaute says. Officially sanctioned pain management for vets today is limited to physical therapy, pharmaceuticals – which may be addictive –and over-the-counter remedies. So new treatments need to be explored, the vet argues, adding, “It’s important to get more buy-in not from society in general but from the legislators in a position to make these decisions.”
Tofaute’s own military traumas stem from a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, another crash in California and a parachute accident in the Philippines. The results, he says, have included “cracked ribs, pieces of metal from parts of the helicopter being stabbed into you, tib-fibs, spiral fractures and concussions.”
He has buddies, he says, who have had good results with cannabis for pain. He doesn’t use cannabis remedies himself, he says, because he’s skittish about ingesting substances and because he tried an opiate with negative results. However, though he supports cannabis for others working with a physician, he worries about the plant’s illegal status.
“I’m also still participating in activities that require background checks so I’m not in a position where I would feel comfortable participating in that type of treatment,” he says.
The primary problem, Tofaute continues, is that, “If you choose to participate in more legal means like going to a dispensary, you just waived all rights to purchase a firearm.” In fact, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives states clearly on its application form 4473 that this is the case.
The ATF’s prohibition raises the hackles of Michael Krawitz, a member of the voluntary group, Veterans Action Council, which addressed that letter to AG Garland. Krawitz, a veteran himself, calls ATF’s rule a violation of the Second Amendment and says it’s lacking in supporting litigation. In fact the federal government has no business “punishing” vets, he says, for using medicinal cannabis in the states legal for it. VA doctors, he says, should be responsive to their patients’ needs, not to federal restrictions.
Moreover, in the extreme case of suicide, Krawitz says, “We’re talking about people dying.
“It strikes me, as an analogy, that we as military veterans have built a life raft of cannabis and we swam all the way out to the ocean to meet the VA where it is – and they said, ‘We’d rather you drown.’
“They’d rather let veterans die [from suicide] than use that option” of medicinal cannabis.”