How the American Legion Became a Medical Cannabis Advocate

American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan: The group's members are driving the Legion's interest in medical cannabis. “Our membership numbers are so important,” she said. “They have got to mean something in this fight against the opioid crisis. Let’s get marijuana tested to find out if it is one of the answers.” (Photo courtesy of The American Legion)

Denise Rohan, the national commander of the American Legion, is scheduled to testify before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs today to discuss what Congress and the Trump administration can do to improve veterans’ benefits. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is also expected to testify.

'The American Legion is all about making sure that veterans are taken care of. We have to find replacements for the opioid epidemic.'
Denise Rohan, national commander, American Legion

Last week, as a prelude to that testimony, Rohan met the media at a National Press Club discussion about better ways to deliver benefits to the country’s more than 20 million veterans. In a question and answer session following the formal presentation, Leafly asked Rohan about the stance of the American Legion on medical cannabis.

“The American Legion is all about making sure that veterans are taken care of,” she said. “We have to find replacements for the opioid epidemic that we have in this nation.”

With that, she deferred to Louis Celli, the American Legion’s National Director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation. Celli talked about the results of a nationwide survey of veterans and caregivers conducted in Oct. 2017. The survey found that 82 percent of all veterans and caregivers want to have cannabis available as a federally legal treatment. 92 percent support research into medical cannabis, and 1 in 5 veterans report using cannabis to treat their medical or physical conditions.

(Results of that survey were revealed in a press conference on the Hill in November, featuring a bipartisan group of congressmen speaking in support of legalizing medical marijuana, including Minnesota Democratic Congressman Tim Walz, the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz, who has sponsored a bill to reschedule cannabis.)

“We are calling for additional research into cannabis to find what it may help,” Celli told Leafly. “Whether it is for PTSD or inflammation or pain or convulsions—whatever it is that that might be good for. We just need to know that the American government is focused on trying to find cures for not only veterans but for all Americans. If cannabis, which is a drug, is something that can help, they have to do the research. And right now they can’t do it.”

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How the Legion Found Its Voice

In the past few years, the American Legion has become an increasingly powerful voice advocating for the rights of veterans when it comes to medical cannabis.

During their national convention in Aug. 2016, the organization released their first medical marijuana-related resolution, which called for the removal of cannabis from Schedule I. The resolution advocated reclassifying it as a drug with potential medical value.

When the American Legion speaks on an issue, officials in Washington DC listen.

One year later, the Legion called on the federal government to allow healthcare providers with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to discuss medical cannabis as a treatment option with veterans in states where medical cannabis is legal.

During a meeting of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission in 2017, former American Legion National Commander Bill Detweiler—chairman of the Legion’s Traumatic Brain Injury/Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Ad Hoc Committee—said the Legion would continue to push for alternative treatments for PTSD.

“We are looking to see what we can do as an organization to urge the Veterans Administration, to urge the military and … to get congressional funding to find the funds necessary to do the studies [on alternative treatments], even though the studies may be hard,” Detweiler said at the time. “Let’s take a look at things that are available that maybe are not used but could be used—not to hurt somebody, but to maybe give them a better quality of life. On our end, that’s what we’re all about.”

The American Legion was not the only veterans’ group advocating on the issue, but the organization’s institutional voice—and its considerable membership and reputation—seemed to make a difference. In Dec. 2017, the Veterans Administration issued a directive that allowed VA doctors to discuss medical cannabis use with veterans in states where it is legal. VA healthcare providers may discuss, but not recommend. Veterans who wish to include medical cannabis in their personal healthcare program must obtain a recommendation from a healthcare provider outside the VA system, which adds a separate and sometimes substantial cost.

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Change Driven by Member Veterans

The American Legion does not, as a rule, take radical positions on public policy. Their recent resolutions, as well as the willingness of their leaders to talk about the issue, may be another indication of how mainstream medical marijuana has become—and how important the issue is to America’s veterans.

How did the Legion move to embrace a more open position on medical cannabis?

Louis Celli said the organization’s push for more research came about because of the many anecdotal stories they heard from veterans using cannabis. He said that use of medical cannabis should be “grounded and founded” in scientific research the federal government supports. But even that relatively mild position hasn’t come without criticism from some members. Comments on a section of the American Legion website devoted to their work on medical marijuana show much support, along with comments about marijuana being a gateway drug–and worse.

“We are not really getting pushback from our decision to support medical marijuana,” Celli told Leafly. “But veterans using medical marijuana in states where it is legal are participating in those programs with a feeling of inner guilt, because they were raised through a law enforcement or law abiding type of environment that said cannabis was bad and immoral,” he said. “Now they are finding that it is a valid treatment for them and they are having trouble reconciling that.”

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A Personal Connection

This will continue to be a big issue for the Legion, but also a personal one for National Commander Denise Rohan. After her presentation, Rohan, who hails from Wisconsin, told Leafly about a Wisconsin veteran who overdosed from the opioids that were prescribed for him.

She hopes that the voices of the more than 2 million American Legion members will make a difference in opening up more research into the medical use of cannabis for veterans. “Our membership numbers are so important,” she said. “They have got to mean something in this fight against the opioid crisis. Let’s get marijuana tested to find out if it is one of the answers.”

Rohan added that the American Legion has formed a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) team to examine the emerging solutions for veterans managing the condition. “Marijuana could be one of them,” she said. “We are just saying, ‘Let us do a study.’”

PTSD Studies: Already Underway

A number of PTSD-and-cannabis studies are currently underway, although it remains relatively difficult to obtain approval for such studies in the United States.

Dr. Sue Sisley, a renowned PTSD researcher and frequent speaker at medical marijuana conferences, has developed the first clinical research on medical marijuana for PTSD with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Working with a $2.2 million grant from the state of Colorado—financed by the state’s cannabis tax revenue—Sisley’s group is evaluating the relative efficacy of four different potencies of cannabis for veterans managing PTSD. As of Feb. 12, 42 veterans have enrolled in her clinical trial at the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona to evaluate four different potencies of cannabis for symptoms of PTSD. By 2020, her study group expects to go to a phase of research resulting in product going to market.

In Canada, researchers at the University of British Columbia and the licensed cannabis producer Tilray began conducting a clinical trial to evaluate the therapeutic potential of medical cannabis for PTSD in 2016. The study is scheduled to conclude in the spring of 2018, with results published thereafter. (Full disclosure: Tilray and Leafly are separate companies, but both are owned by the private equity firm Privateer Holdings.)

In Israel, the pioneering cannabis researcher Raphael Mechoulam led a limited study of ten patients with chronic PTSD. That study, published in 2014, found that a twice-daily dose of 5 mg of THC “caused a statistically significant improvement in global symptom severity, sleep quality, frequency of nightmares, and PTSD hyperarousal symptoms.”