Martin directs the drug policy program at Rice University's Baker Institute.
Of the 2.6 million U.S. service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated 1 million suffered injuries in those wars. Cannabis cannot restore missing limbs or heal skin scarred by fire, but it can help physically and psychologically wounded veterans live a more normal life, as large and increasing numbers have discovered. It can be effective in dealing with chronic pain, reducing inflammation and depression, and combating the complex terrors of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In the process, it can prevent suicide.
A 2012 study by the Department of Veterans Affairsreported that 22 veterans end their own lives every day. That's one every 65 minutes. As shocking as that widely reported statistic is, the true figure is certainly much higher. States (including Texas) with 60 percent of the nation's population and more than 8 million veterans did not submit data in time to be counted. The great majority of these self-inflicted deaths can confidently be attributed to PTSD, from which troubled vets had found no other exit. The major treatment options offered by VA doctors include opioid painkillers, antidepressants and sleeping pills, which veterans repeatedly describe as being "handed out like Skittles" and leaving them feeling like "pilled-up zombies."
While researching this topic for a magazine article earlier this year, I heard men and women tell of how cannabis offers blessed relief from pain and the psychological torture of PTSD. Moreover, instead of serving as a "gateway" to harder drugs, it has provided them with an exit from the more addictive and dangerous alcohol and prescription drugs.
Israeli scientists who pioneered the study of cannabis have discovered what they call the endocannabinoid system, consisting of chemicals - specifically, cannabis - that our bodies produce and cannabinoid receptors in the brain and elsewhere in the central nervous system that make use of these chemicals. These play a role in the stimulation, increase, and extinction of such behaviors and responses as appetite, aggression, sociability, pain, stress, anxiety, memory and sleep.
When functioning properly, the body manufactures its own cannabis to help keep us on an even keel. But when the internal system is inadequate to deal with the terrors and anxiety of war or other trauma such as rape or natural disaster, external cannabis can provide a needed booster to bring things back into balance.
Despite frustrating roadblocks to cannabis research in the United States, scientific evidence of the drug's medical efficacy is growing rapidly. A clinical study published in the March issue of Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found that patients in the medical marijuana system in New Mexico experienced a 75 percent reduction in the major symptoms of PTSD.
Most Americans, including 77 percent of Texans, believe cannabis should be available for therapeutic purposes. Already, 23 states and the District of Columbia have some system that makes that possible and the VA permits its use in those states. Unfortunately, when veterans use this manifestly beneficial drug in Texas, they commit a crime and can lose their VA benefits.
Therapeutic cannabis bills will come before the Texas Legislature in 2015. Tired of being branded as criminals for their use of a plant that brings relief from physical and psychological injuries suffered in service of their country, veterans are mobilizing to support those bills. Consider these bills and, if you find they have merit, contact your representatives to tell them that. We owe our soldiers every effective tool available to help them regain the lives they had prior to their service. It is the right thing to do and their cause is just.