SARASOTA, Fla. -- Several panelists made their cases in a Thursday forum for why marijuana should no longer be classified by the federal government as a Schedule 1 drug -- as dangerous as heroin.
The program focused on the Herald-Tribune project "Warriors Rise Up," which found a gaping rift between what many combat veterans want to treat their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries, and what they can legally get.
Rather than a cocktail of painkillers, many veterans prefer the relief they receive from marijuana. Because of marijuana's Schedule 1 designation under federal law, however, the VA has not considered it an option -- even in states that have legalized the drug for medical use.
Project reporter Billy Cox explained that an average of 20.6 veterans commit suicide daily, with 3.8 of those being active-duty personnel. The nation has lost more troops to suicide than to a decade of the global war on terror. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 75,000 Americans with military backgrounds killed themselves in the 10 years from 2005 to 2015.
"How is that acceptable?" Cox said at the event sponsored by the Herald-Tribune. "... We're in a crisis right now."
The Schedule 1 classification is "not only fraudulent policy, it's immoral," Cox said.
Veterans Affairs dispenses addictive opioid prescriptions "like candy," he said. Although the federal government has yet to record a fatality caused by marijuana, opioids continue to be a leading cause of death among addicts.
On Wednesday, two Democratic U.S. senators, Florida's Bill Nelson and Hawaii's Brian Schatz, introduced legislation to allow Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe marijuana to veterans in the 31 states that have legalized it for medical use, including Florida.
The bill would also direct the VA to conduct research on the effects of medical marijuana on veterans for pain management and how it can be used to reduce opioid abuse. Veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to die from an opioid overdose.
Cox told Nelson, who visited Mote Marine in Sarasota on Thursday, that veterans do not think his legislation goes far enough, that they want marijuana's Schedule 1 classification removed. He said Nelson responded that it is very difficult to get any changes in federal law pertaining to marijuana.
Parrish resident Bob Jordan, a disabled veteran, said marijuana provides his wife, Cathy, relief from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. As soon as she started using it, he said, "her speech cleared up. She walked better."
Janine Lutz, a Fort Lauderdale activist whose Marine Corps son took his life in 2013, said psychotropic drugs prescribed to him by VA doctors for his PTSD and a brain injury led him to hallucinate and commit "pharmaceutically induced suicide."
Had he instead been prescribed cannabis, "my son would be alive today," Lutz insisted.
Lutz said that about five months after her son Johnny's death she became "mad as H-E-L-L. ... Why didn't somebody tell me? I didn't know about the suicide epidemic."
Lutz decided to go public in a highly visible way, and started compiling photos of veterans who committed suicide because they were denied access to cannabis for a wall used for public demonstrations. She has 384 laminated photos of "youthful faces" on a display that alarms and saddens viewers.
"The whole (Schedule 1) classification of it was based on a lie," Lutz said of cannabis. "America has been hoodwinked by the government."
Former Israeli Defense Force master sergeant Sam Schneider, a local CBD (cannabidiol) retailer, explained that he sells a derivative from industrial hemp. He touts it as helpful for people suffering from pain, anxiety, seizures and fractures. He said he sees customers experiencing improvements within 10 minutes. He has 500 clients each month, many of them using CBD to "detox" themselves from strong painkillers.
Although CBD can be beneficial, "the whole plant is much preferred," Schneider said. "... The ideal is for everyone to grow their own as medicine. ... It's a weed. It grows anywhere."
Jordan described troubles with the criminal justice system after law enforcement raided their house and confiscated their marijuana plants.
As a Vietnam War veteran, Jordan said he became "hooked" on painkillers the VA prescribed for his PTSD.
He agreed with Schneider that derivatives are not as effective as the whole cannabis plant.
"I think it's the best plant on the planet," Jordan said. "It's also the safest."
If marijuana were fully legalized, "imagine what science could do" in finding more beneficial uses for it, Jordan said.
This article is written by Dale White from Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.