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With President Joe Biden announcing federal pardons earlier this month for those charged with simple possession of marijuana, many have called for the same to be done in North Carolina. Among those calling for statewide pardons are Gov. Roy Cooper and N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein.
“We need to end this stigma that can keep people from getting jobs and make sure law enforcement keeps its focus on fighting violent crime, drug traffickers and other threats to safe communities,” Cooper said in an emailed statement.
But the state, while it has decriminalized possession charges, has failed to do what 37 other states have: legalize marijuana for medical use.
Among the supporters of legal access to medical marijuana are military veterans who served at Fort Bragg, home of airborne and special operations and one of the largest military complexes in the world. They stated that medical cannabis should be available to those who use marijuana to cope with both mental and physical pain, including post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD.
Veterans for legalizing medical marijuana
On a chilly October afternoon this week, four retired veterans met for their regular card game at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post off Chance Street in Fayetteville. Among them was Jack Pines. The 73-year-old retired U.S. Army veteran has never used marijuana, but he’s seen other soldiers use the drug throughout his time in the military. He started serving in 1969.
“A lot of people talk about marijuana as a gateway drug, but I don’t feel like it’s that way,” Pines said. “If medical marijuana will help alleviate pain — veterans or anyone else — it should be legal.”
Grilley Mitchell, president of the Cumberland County Veterans Council and an Army veteran, said that he’s spoken with military members who’ve traveled out of state to obtain medical marijuana to treat ailments such as chronic pain, PTSD and other problems.
“Not just PTSD, but the anxiety of it all, even the thoughts of suicide,” he said. “(The medical marijuana) has been a benefit to them all.”
In 2020, 199 veterans in North Carolina died by suicide. Among the whole population of the state, 1,385 died by suicide that year, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD, among other factors, can be a cause for suicide. The reasons can vary for each person.
North Carolina’s rate, however, is lower than the national veteran suicide rate from 2020, which was 31.7 per 100,000. For the southern region of the United States, which for this study extended as far south as Florida and Texas and north to Maryland, the suicide rate was 31.9 per 100,000.
In 2020 and ’21, suicides and drug overdoses killed more active-duty armed forces members at Fort Bragg than combat and training deaths, WRAL reported earlier this month.
An investigation last month in Rolling Stone magazine also brought to light the increasing problem of overdoses in a story about 14 Fort Bragg soldiers who died from drug overdose in 2020 and ’21. Eleven of those were from fentanyl, an opioid that can be deadly if abused. Fentanyl overdose deaths have increased among the general population in recent years, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Veterans self-medicate with marijuana to treat PTSD
One of the veterans who plays cards with Pines is Roscoe Killet, a Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War.
Killet, 76, suffered injuries to his legs and mental anguish from active combat. After bouts of alcoholism, he sought help from a psychiatrist in the years following his service.
“Nobody talked about PTSD back then. There’s just a lot of things I’d like to forget,” Killet said.
He said marijuana helps veterans with the trauma experienced in combat.
“I hang out with people who smoke marijuana. I don’t mind being around it,” Killet said. “It relaxes you. You can know you don’t have to deal with those things that day. And if you do have to deal with them, you can do it in a different mode.”
Killet and Pines aren’t alone in their attitudes about the use of marijuana for medical reasons.
Former Fayetteville City Council member Chris Davis is also a Purple Heart recipient who suffers from PTSD, and while he doesn’t personally use marijuana, he knows people who do to cope with the trauma they experienced in their military service.
“Veterans are combat victims, combat survivors. They’ve seen the enemy. They’ve been shot at, blown up. They’ve experienced some type of traumatic combat event that has marked us for life,” he said. “That emotional trauma of losing friends.”
The lack of conclusive research into medical marijuana
While veterans and active-duty soldiers swear by the benefits of marijuana, this is largely anecdotal, as the research into medical cannabis is relatively sparse and limited in scope.
The findings of current marijuana research are inconsistent, states a 2019 examination of nearly 2,000 cannabis studies by the peer-reviewed medical journal BioMed Central. According to the review, studies “frequently but inconsistently reported” mild harms from marijuana use and that harms may outweigh benefits.
This inconsistency is due to legal restrictions at the federal level that make the efficacy difficult to study, The Washington Post reported in 2014, as getting approval for cannabis studies is more difficult than research into other drugs.
According to the BioMed Central review, longer-term studies with more rigorous evidence are needed to determine how effective medical marijuana is in treating pain and mental illness.
Davis believes, based on anecdotes from others, legalization of medical marijuana and more studies will show it to be more effective and safer than other medications.
“I’ve talked to so many veterans who pretty much swear by it,” he said. “It’s just something we really need to start wrestling with, to really find a way to deliver it in a way that really facilitates the results that we know are possible.”
Research into PTSD treatment
Though some veterans say that marijuana helps with their PTSD, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t recommend marijuana as a treatment.
“Research to date does not support cannabis as an effective PTSD treatment, and some studies suggest cannabis can be harmful, particularly when used for long periods of time,” the agency says on its website.
A study from last year, published by the Public Library of Science, found no significant difference in PTSD symptoms among the groups.
This short-term study was the first placebo-controlled trial to look into the effectiveness of treating PTSD using marijuana. The researchers said more well-controlled studies are needed to come to a definitive conclusion.
A 2019 review from the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience found that many studies pointed to benefits in animal studies pertaining to PTSD treatment. More human tests were needed, as those that did test people had a small sample size and did not consider the intricacies of mental illness that may have complicated the results.
“Legal restrictions that existed regarding access and use of cannabis had, unfortunately, limited the evaluation of the medical use of cannabis in humans, including treatment of psychological disorders,” the review concluded.
Studies on treating pain with marijuana
Other studies into marijuana indicate some promise in treating pain.
One study found that opioid-related deaths decreased slightly each month in Colorado after marijuana legalization. Another study found that states that legalized marijuana, compared with states that didn’t, had a 25% lower opioid mortality rate from 1999 to 2010.
For the CDC, however, the body of evidence isn’t conclusive. According to the federal agency, there is limited evidence that marijuana works to treat acute or chronic pain.
Pines said that marijuana should legally be treated like any other drug that treats pain. The dangers from it, he said based on his experience, are overblown and that any drug that’s abused can be unsafe.
“It’s a drug,” he said. “We’ve got several drugs out there that’s dangerous that people take every day.”
Legalization, Pines said, would give better access to those who rely on marijuana like any other drug.
“It would make a big difference,” he said. “It would be in a more controlled environment, and people that actually need it could get access to it.”
‘A political issue’
Over the course of two summers, this year and last year, attempts to legalize medical marijuana in the N.C. General Assembly failed, stalling in the N.C. Senate last year and then in N.C. House this past summer.
These attempts at legalization failed despite the wide support in North Carolina for legalization. An Elon University poll from February 2021 found that 73% of North Carolinians support the legalization of medical marijuana.
The legislation would have made treatment with marijuana legal for many ailments, including PTSD, but not chronic or acute pain.
“It has become a political issue as opposed to, say, a medical issue,” Pines said. “I would be an advocate for it to be legalized, even though I personally don’t partake of it. I don’t see where marijuana is a bad drug. I don’t see it. I don’t look at it in that it’s a gateway drug to harsher drugs.”
Mitchell said many veterans were disappointed when the legislation stalled.
“Hold a town hall meeting and invite the military, invite the veterans, invite the family members, hold an open forum discussion so they can see how they really feel about it,” he said. “What we’re talking about is fair, open, honest discussion.”
Additional reporting by Melissa Sue Gerrits.