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Veterans Day: Texas Vets Fight for Medical Cannabis Legalization

If you start hearing stories about thousands of toy soldiers showing up on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol on Veteran’s Day, you can thank David Bass.

Bass is the director of veteran outreach for Texas NORML, one of the cannabis advocacy group’s most active chapters.

He came by that position through hard experience. Years ago, Bass found himself taking an assortment of prescription painkillers to deal with the PTSD and chronic pain brought on by a 20-year career in the U.S. Army.

“Each medication had terrible side effects,” Bass said. “I felt like a zombie. I had flat emotions, experienced suicidal ideation. I got addicted to hydrocodone. It got to where I couldn’t do without taking it every day. And I was drinking a lot.”

Then he tried cannabis. “With better-grade cannabis,” Bass told Leafly, “I noticed I was using less pain medication, and felt I needed the psychotropic drugs less.”

All well and good. Except that Bass lives in Texas. And using medical cannabis makes him, and a growing number of military veterans just like him, a criminal.

“We don’t want to be criminals. And we don’t want to die,” says one Texas veteran.

Bass wants to change that—by changing the minds of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and hardline anti-marijuana state legislators. He’s come up with a novel way to get their attention: Operation Trapped.

“We’re collecting a thousand individual pill bottles,” he explained. “We’ll put a toy soldier in each one, representing a Texas veteran who has a service-connected disability. And we’ll display them at the Capitol on Veterans Day, November 11. We want an alternative.”

Without that alternative—medical marijuana—Bass says soldiers who don’t want to break the law are forced to rely on opiates and other legal painkillers that can create addiction and numb the will to live.

“Going back as far as Vietnam and Korea, people have used marijuana as an exit drug,” said Bass, an Iraq War veteran who retired as an Army officer in 2006. “Every one of us using medical marijuana has the same story.”

Upon his retirement, Bass was given psychotropic drugs—Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac—and the painkiller hydrocodone. When none made him feel better, “I started doing research, reading about the endocannabinoid system. I was convinced cannabis was becoming an exit drug. I asked my psychiatrist about ending my psychotropic use, and they told me I couldn’t even consider stopping them for two years. But after that conversation, I stopped cold turkey.”

Medical cannabis is now legal and available in 28 states and Washington D.C. But soldiers with service-connected disabilities who seek out cannabis in Texas as an alternative to prescription drugs? They’re law-breaker who face up to 180 days in prison and a $2,000 fine. That’s the punishment meted out for possession of less than two ounces of cannabis in the Lone Star State.

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1,000 pill bottles with 1,000 soldiers

Operation Trapped’s ultimate objective, Bass said, is to allow veterans to be able to go to licensed, legal dispensaries, and for doctors in Texas to be able to recommend it.

The prescription pill bottles being collected under Operation Trapped are inscribed with the names and details of real-life Texas vets with service disabilities who support legalizing medical marijuana. Bass aims to gather at least 1,000 bottles by November.

In Texas, the fight to legalize medical cannabis can only be won through legislative advocacy, rather than through a direct petition by citizens. “In Texas, we don’t have a ballot initiative, which is how most other states that got medical marijuana passed did it,” Bass said. “We must go through the legislature—and even then, the governor has veto power.”

Gov. Abbott’s office didn’t respond to Leafly’s request for comment. But in 2015—after the legislature passed a limited, CBD-only bill—he stated, “I remain convinced that Texas should not legalize marijuana, nor should Texas open the door for conventional marijuana to be used for medical or medicinal purposes. As governor I will not allow it.”

Texas veterans who are medical cannabis advocates are gearing up for a tough battle in the next legislative session.

Veterans are traditionally a powerful conservative voting block, and Texas is home to about 1.7 million vets—about a third of whom are of retirement age. Within the past year, many veterans in Texas have become more comfortable about exercising their right to “symbolic speech” by discussing their belief that medical marijuana should be a right—even if they themselves aren’t patients.

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Texas legislators: Changing one mind at a time

Many Texas politicians don’t understand—or care to understand—that allowing veterans access to medical marijuana would save lives and spark new business opportunities. For instance, state Sen. Donna Campbell’s tactic is to flat-out refuse to listen to or read evidence that veterans provide to her about cannabis. This March, after being presented a document summarizing findings in the scientific literature on therapeutic benefits of cannabis, Campbell stated: “I am looking for far more than anecdotal evidence… Your work is cut out in convincing me and it’s going to take overwhelming scientific data.” Campbell represents a six-county district, including parts of Austin and San Antonio, and is also a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Operation Trapped is also circulating a letter for signatures in support of landing a meeting with Gov. Abbott on Veterans’ Day this year. Bass and his allies hope to deliver a letter, their symbolic bottles, and have six veterans from six different wars speak directly to the governor.

Air Force veteran Clif Duevall, a medical cannabis supporter from Waco, calls the political runaround that veterans have gotten “the Texas two-step.” He’s not the only one who thinks the Texas Compassionate Use Act was a political ploy. That Act, signed into law by Gov. Abbot in June 2015, allows a very few qualifying patients to access “low-THC cannabis” with less than 0.5 percent THC and more than 10 percent CBD. Intractable epilepsy is the only qualifying condition, and may be used only after two FDA-approved drugs are found to be ineffective. Simply put, the law does not allow the vast majority of veterans to benefit from medical marijuana.

“My zip code should not decide my medicine.”
Navy veteran Romana Harrison

Duevall, who’s been in the VA system for forty years, was medically discharged after service in Vietnam. He turned to medical marijuana in 2009 only after his doctor told him he’d be on methadone for life to treat neuropathic pain—that is, pain originating in his brain.

“It wasn’t killing my pain,” Duevall said. “It was killing me slowly. There were so many side effects I had to take more medications for my side effects. I was 90 pounds, and looked like I was 100 years old. I wasn’t about to be attritioned out of my life.”

Duevall gradually became more open with VA doctors about his marijuana use. He says his experiences have shown how physicians’ attitudes toward marijuana are often quietly supportive, and recognize that it can be used responsibly. But it can still be awkward, since in states where medical marijuana isn’t legal, VA doctors are required to send patients to substance-abuse programs if they are found to have cannabis in their systems.

“One day I made sure I tested dirty, so I had to go to a drug rehabilitation counselor,” Duevall said. “We spoke at length. And I said, ‘When would you like me to come back?’ She said, ‘You don’t have to come back. You don’t have a problem.’”

Duevall, who in 2001 was recognized as the Texas Senate’s Commended Educator of the Year, just completed a run for office as state representative. (He lost on Tuesday night to the incumbent.) And he said he “uses every teachable moment” with his doctors. “They start to ask me questions now,” he said.

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Growing medicine: It’s twice therapeutic.

Romana Harrison, an ex-Navy, Houston-based survivor of military sexual trauma (MST), who serves in veteran outreach roles for both PACT and NORML, says she was introduced to marijuana by her uncle, a World War II veteran who’d seen the beaches of Normandy. That uncle staged an intervention to get Harrison off painkillers during a time when she was doing “a lot of drinking and drugging” to cope with the trauma.

“My uncle didn’t know exactly what had happened,” Harrison said, “but he knew it had been traumatic, and he knew [cannabis] would help me like it helped him.”

She says many of her doctors, like Duevall’s, now express support. “My doctor told me gardening was very therapeutic, and that it would be very therapeutic to grow my own medicine.”

She decries what she calls Texas’ “alleged Compassionate Care Act”: “I have friends who died this year. Medical cannabis would have saved them.”

As for what she and other Operation Trapped advocates hope for from the Texas Legislature and Gov. Abbott, she doesn’t mince words. “We don’t want to be criminals. And we don’t want to die. My zip code should not decide my medicine.”