This article is presented by Curaleaf, partnering with the Veterans Cannabis Project to advocate for improved access to medical cannabis for veterans.
The service and commitment demonstrated by United States military veterans stir many Americans to their core. At the intersection of veterans and medical cannabis is the Veterans Cannabis Project – where Executive Director Doug Distaso works towards full legal cannabis access because he knows exactly what other vets are going through.
“I was in a pretty bad spot after I left the Air Force. I was taking the standard combat cocktail of benzos, opioids, and mood enhancers, and got my wake-up call one Christmas morning. I was following my doctor’s orders but couldn’t be fully present with my family on all those pills and had fallen asleep in the middle of opening gifts. My wife shook me awake, and that was when it clicked for me that something had to change. Days like Christmas are important to my life as a father and husband, and they are the entire reason why veterans sacrifice in the first place.”
The Veterans Cannabis Project thinks the sacrifices that the military veterans make are the reason they deserve access to the same solutions that have helped countless others and Doug leads the charge.
“At this moment, data suggests that 22 veterans a day commit suicide and that at least 1 in 5 are returning from places like Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. Those are alarming problems,” Doug says.
His personal experience gives him the ability to connect and empathize with other veterans, and it’s the clear focus of everything that happens at the VCP. With members of the organization on the ground all over the United States, the organization uses three pillars to spread its essential message: advocacy, education, and support.
“We believe that we need to get full legal access to cannabis for veterans, and we use advocacy, education, and support to achieve our goals. We demonstrate our advocacy every day on the Hill, trying to create a community of advocates with personal stories that can be shared with legislators. We fight to get laws changed because we know the discrepancy between state and federal law is what is anchoring many of our problems.”
“Education is equally important to our advocacy efforts. We look to countries like Canada that have started introducing cannabis to veterans, teaching them about it, testing its efficacy – and we mimic their education efforts. We also look for ways to get the correct research and information to veterans that want to begin a cannabis journey or addressing their doubts about using medical cannabis.”
Doug thinks that support is the most important part of all. The Veterans Cannabis Project has local advocates (referred to as VCP Force Commanders) who work within their communities to help other vets that are struggling, undereducated about cannabis, or confused about the particulars of medical cannabis programs, including details about how the Department of Veterans Affairs views cannabis use.
“In the military, we say that you have to win the current fight, and the current fight is full legal access that includes comprehensive support from the VA. Veterans rely so profoundly on the VA due to the types of injuries sustained, the lack of income we bring in when we get home, and the treatment level we need to heal, so we need them on board and at our side, not working against us.”
Though getting the support of the VA is a massive part of the fight, it isn’t the only thing that vets worry about when they consider using cannabis to combat the symptoms that impact them most. As they take care of their physical and mental health, many also have to navigate the post-military workforce.
“Maintaining security clearance is a big topic in the veteran community, which is made up of a lot of rule-following, law-abiding people. Their clearance is a symbol of their hard work, and sometimes all they have after leaving active duty. Interacting with cannabis, a Schedule 1 drug, can put their security clearance at risk, so it’s not realistic for them,” Doug says. “As long as there is threat and stigma from the drug schedule, veterans are going to be wary of cannabis, even if it is to their detriment.”
Amongst other things, vets worry about their second amendment rights, making adequate money to live a full and happy life, and staying balanced throughout the day. Eventually, the choice became a no-brainer for Doug.
“Personally, a security clearance does me no good if I’m not awake, aware, and alive enough to have a life. I always upheld my end of the bargain with my clearance, but it did lead me to choose to have this life outside of working for the government,” he says. “The reality is, I struggle to see the point of penalizing people who seek out cannabis when alcohol and pills have the same, if not greater, detrimental effects. Under current federal law, cannabis use voids your second amendment rights and security clearance, and the VCP wants legislators to rectify these things so that all veterans can have a better quality of life and do the work they have the skills and training to complete.”
The Veterans Cannabis Project’s efforts on the ground have already started to expand to meet the unique needs of veterans. Along with local team members that they have on the ground to meet with doctors and canna-curious vets, they’ve also started recruiting for an art program created to help veterans express themselves and their feelings.
“I almost didn’t know I was allowed to paint. I think that’s the case with a lot of veterans. We don’t know what we are allowed to do. I joined the Air Force Academy at 17 years old. Twenty-five years later, I’m 42 and realize that I’ve missed out on a lot. I hadn’t done a lot of the things that many other people had done. I had never picked up a paintbrush until a year ago or so, but I found that it gave me such a sense of calm.”
Doug believes that any treatment veterans receive should be backed up with outreach so that they never feel alone. After all, the whole point of the Veterans Cannabis Project is to bring help and support to like-minded vets in every aspect of their post-military service.
Curaleaf supports nationwide visibility of the Veterans Cannabis Project by offering VCP branded pre-roll 5-packs in six of the states where they have dispensaries, with more launches planned in the next few months. One dollar from every box sold goes directly to the VCP to support their advocacy for improved access to medical marijuana for veterans.