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The veteran population in the United States, like every other demographic in society, is facing the anxiety and trauma associated with COVID-19.

National veterans organizations that focus on lobbying for health care and benefits funding in Congress, have long been focused on mental health care modalities. With troubling reports of suicides and the well-documented symptoms of troops returning from war, it has become imperative to advocates in the veteran cannabis community to examine the variety of treatments, and make sure those that are effective are made accessible.

For a great deal of veterans, cannabis is the treatment that works. And because of the unique aspect of federalism, with some states allowing access and others — along with the federal government — restricting it, challenges exist.

This has been illuminated by the coronavirus pandemic. Veterans need cannabis options now more than ever, and restricting it by government officials and closing dispensaries poses a serious danger to veterans at this time.

Take Massachusetts for example, where the Veterans Cannabis Project (VCP) recently placed a full-page ad of a letter the organization, wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker urging him to declare cannabis dispensaries “essential services” so these treatments can be made accessible, especially in these fearful times for people.

The education gap between most policy makers and leaders in the veteran community is striking on the issues of cannabis treatment and it is now much worse this time around. For those of us that seek treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital system, it is beyond easy to acquire powerful opiates, or loads of psychotropic drugs to manage the variety of diagnosed conditions doctors may assign to us. Yet, because the federal government has cannabis placed as a schedule one drug, and due to federal law, we cannot be prescribed. Thus, most veterans will seek cannabis from their home states to manage a variety of conditions. We cannot imagine a disease outbreak reducing anxiety symptoms or making any veteran out there feel better, and we know directly from those we serve that it is making times harder.

Much harder.

We have been to war. We have returned to work in the civilian economy after service and have functioned in society after great falls from service. We have worked at the highest levels of the U.S. government to advocate for policies that aid veterans. The cannabis issue is by far the most important for providing patient outcomes. In the cases we have seen with severe anxiety, pain, and polytrauma, prohibitions on these treatments is dangerous and dumb and this time around we don’t have time to wait. Veterans have been calling for federal cannabis policy to change for the last several years to include the largest veterans service organization (the American Legion).

It is imperative that all veterans who believe a full scope of treatment options should be available to us, contact their legislators and state officials and urge dispensaries to be listed as “essential services” and kept open. Beyond that, we need to make sure we keep all veterans and their families in mind at this difficult time. This is a time when all treatments and access for remedies to mental health conditions are made available for our veteran population. Barriers to cannabis access and continued sharp disruptions to many current treatment plans the result could be a hindrance to preventable suicides from among bravest citizens.

Doug Distaso is the executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project (VCP). He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and went on to serve more than 21 years in the U.S. Air Force. From 2000-2015, Doug commanded joint aviation, maintenance, and support personnel globally and served as a primary legislative affairs lead for two USSOCOM commanders. This operational focus allowed successes in counter-terrorism hotspots from Europe to the Pacific. During his military service, Doug was in a plane accident that left him with a broken body and traumatic brain injury. After coping with the demands of military life in the field and at the Pentagon and suffering from sustained chronic pain and PTSD, he left the military addicted to pain killers. With the help of his wife, Whitney, Doug was able to eliminate the opiates and other pain killers that were damaging his relationships and rely instead upon the medical benefits of cannabis to safely manage his chronic pain and PTSD. Having experienced the plight that millions of veterans face daily in the United States, Doug has dedicated his post-military life to ensuring a better future for veterans in our country. Within his role as Veterans Cannabis Project, he works every day to increase veterans access to safe medical cannabis. Doug also serves as the vice president of legislative affairs for security, defense, and space at Navigators Global, a government relations, strategic communications, and issues management firm located in Washington. In his spare time, Doug is dedicated to helping veterans through art therapy.

Christopher Neiweem is the federal communications for Veterans Cannabis Project (VCP). Chris is an Iraq War veteran who has testified in front of Congress numerous times about issues of impact to the military population, and has been at the forefront of some of the biggest policy and budget fights involving veterans benefits. He is seen frequently on CNN, Fox News Channel, and is a national opinion contributor. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, at Springfield. He formerly worked in the office of Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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