Why has dispensary owner Wanda James so actively promoted medical marijuana use for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder? One reason: She and husband/partner Scott Durrah both served in the military. So she's thrilled that the Veterans Administration is loosening rules concerning vets with PTSD and MMJ. But she sees this as only a first step. The next one? Removing weed from the list of Schedule I narcotics.
In the past, vets who were caught using medical marijuana risked being denied other treatment from their VA doctors. Now, as the New York Times reports, a policy tweak means this won't happen in the fourteen states, including Colorado, where medical marijuana has been legalized. The rules are expected to go into effect this week.
"This has been a very long time coming," says James, who owns Apothecary of Colorado with Durrah. "And its importance is two-fold. First of all, it's important that we get these young men and young women the best help possible with the least amount of side effects. We want to help them end the trauma in their lives, not continue the addiction trauma" that can come with chemical dependency on narcotic pain medication. "Plus, we're getting closer to forcing the federal government to take marijuana off the Schedule I list."
She's referring to the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are judged to have "no currently accepted medical use" -- and that's an exceedingly controversial claim when it comes to marijuana. As noted on the Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access website, the American Medical Association is among the major institutions that supports cannabis rescheduling.
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Nonetheless, resistance remains, particularly in Colorado, where the state health department successfully lobbied against adding PTSD as a condition MMJ can treat to a bill to regulate the medical marijuana industry here. And the department shows no signs of changing its tune. Earlier this month, a group led by attorney Brian Vicente and Kevin Grimsinger, an Army veteran who lost parts of both legs to an Afghanistan mine, formally presented a petition to the department to add PTSD to the treatable condition list.
No luck so far on that effort. But James thinks the situation could improve down the line thanks in part to the potential political significance of the VA's move.
James knows politics, having served as Congressman Jared Polis's first campaign manager. She also oversaw the 2006 congressional race for Lieutenant Colonel Jay Fawcett in Colorado Springs -- and she and Durrah serve on the National Finance Committee for none other than President Barack Obama.
From her perspective, the VA's new policy, while it stops short of giving its own doctors the right to recommend medical marijuana, "establishes that it has medicinal value. That points to the fact that we need more studies -- and the key to that is to removing it from Schedule I.
"I don't know any intelligent person who can look at all the evidence about the medical benefits and not come back and at least say, 'We need to study this more,'" she continues. "And once we do, I believe we'll discover that there's tremendous medicinal value in this plant -- and that will move us in the direction of legalization as we move forward."
As a legalization booster, James has few peers -- and she's a good sport, too, having even allowed correspondent Jason Jones to lick her hand during a medical marijuana segment of The Daily Show. But despite her best outreach efforts, many veterans with PTSD still steer clear of medical marijuana -- and she understands why.
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"Vets are interesting people," she says. "As military members, we tend to follow rules. We tend to be the people in society who try to do everything the right way. If you tell us not to run a red light, we're not going to do that. These are responsible people who take being America's best seriously -- and they don't want to break the law. And a lot of them are nervous. They say, 'Medical marijuana helps me, but I'm afraid of losing my benefits, afraid of my family being tossed out of the house, afraid of being arrested.'
"When I hear these concerns, it breaks my heart," James concedes. "But the more people we can give permission to at least try this, the better off we're going to be. And that'll make it harder for any administration in the future to change things back. Because if they decide four million people in our population are criminals and they're going to lock them up, people won't accept that."
Not that she expects a breakthrough overnight.
"As a younger person, in my twenties, I expected change to happen immediately," she says. "But change is a process we go through -- and we're going through that process right now.