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Veterans Push for Medical Marijuana in Conservative South

Veterans Push for Medical Marijuana in Conservative South

RALEIGH, N.C. — Each time Chayse Roth drives home to North Carolina, he notices the highway welcome signs that declare: “Nation’s Most Military Friendly State.”

“That’s a powerful thing to claim,” said Roth, a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant who served multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Now he says he’s calling on the state to live up to those words. A Wilmington resident, Roth is advocating for lawmakers to pass a bill that would legalize medical marijuana  and allow veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other debilitating conditions to use it for treatment.

Originally published in Kaiser Health News.

“I’ve lost more men to suicide since we went to Afghanistan in ’01 than I have in combat,” said Roth, who said he doesn’t use cannabis himself but wants others to have the option. “It’s just unacceptable for these guys to go overseas and win the battle and come home and lose the battle to themselves.”

He is among several veterans brought together by a recently formed advocacy group called NC Families for Medical Cannabis. These veterans have testified before the legislature and visited lawmakers individually.

In a state that’s home to eight military basesone of the largest veteran populations in the country and a Republican-controlled legislature that prides itself on supporting the troops, they hope their voices will act as a crucial lever to push through a bill that has faced opposition in the past.

“If we really want to be the most veteran-friendly state in the union, this is just another thing we can do to solidify that statement,” Roth said.

From California to Massachusetts, veterans have been active in the push for medical marijuana legalization for decades. But now, as the movement focuses on the remaining 14 states that have not enacted comprehensive medical marijuana programs or full marijuana legalization, their voices may have outsize influence, experts say.

Many of these remaining states are in the traditionally conservative South and dominated by Republican legislatures. “The group carrying the message here makes a huge difference,” said Julius Hobson Jr., a former lobbyist for the American Medical Association who now teaches lobbying at George Washington University. “When you’ve got veterans coming in advocating for that, and they’re considered to be a more conservative bunch of folks, that has more impact.”

Veterans also have the power of numbers in many of these states, Hobson said. “That’s what gives them clout.”

Successes are already evident. In Texas and Louisiana, veterans played a key role in the recent expansion of medical marijuana programs. In Mississippi, they supported a successful ballot initiative for medical cannabis in 2020, though the result was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. And in Alabama, the case of an out-of-state veteran arrested and jailed for possession of medical marijuana incited national outrage and calls for legalization. The state legalized medical marijuana earlier this year.

To be sure, not every veteran supports these efforts, and the developments in red states have been influenced by other factors: advocacy from cancer patients and parents whose children have epilepsy, lawmakers who see this as a states’ rights issue, a search for alternative pain relief amid the opioid epidemic and a push from industries seeking economic gains.

But the attention to the addiction and suicide epidemics among veterans, and calls to give them more treatment options, are also powerful forces.

In states like North Carolina, where statewide ballot initiatives are banned, veterans can kick-start a conversation with lawmakers who hold the power to make change, said Garrett Perdue, the son of former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue and a spokesperson for NC Families for Medical Cannabis and CEO of Root Bioscience, a company that makes hemp products.

“It fits right in with the general assembly’s historical support of those communities,” Perdue said. “For [lawmakers] to hear stories of those people that are trusted to protect us and enforce the right of law” and see them as advocates for this policy “is pretty compelling.”Gary Hess (left) and Chayse Roth have testified at North Carolina Legislature hearings advocating for a bill to legalize medical marijuana ― primarily as a treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.(ROB RENS)

Gary Hess, a Marine Corps veteran from Louisiana, said he first realized the power of his platform in 2019, when he testifiedin front of the state legislature about seeing friends decapitated by explosions, reliving the trauma day-to-day, taking a cocktail of prescription medications that did little to help his symptoms and finally finding relief with cannabis. His story resonated with lawmakers who had served in the military themselves, Hess said.

He recalled one former colonel serving in the Louisiana House telling him: “They’re not going to say no to a veteran because of the crisis you’re all in. As someone who is put together well and can tell the story of marijuana’s efficacy, you have a powerful platform.”

Hess has since started his own nonprofit to advocate for medical marijuana legalization and has traveled to other state and national events, including hearings before the North Carolina legislature.

“Once I saw the power my story had,” he said, “the goal became: How do I expedite this process for others?”

Experts trace the push for medical marijuana legalization back to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s, particularly in California’s Bay Area.

As the movement tried to expand, medical marijuana activists realized other regions were not as sympathetic to the LGBTQ community, said Lee Hannah, an associate professor of political science at Wright State University who is writing a book about the rise of legal marijuana in the U.S. They had to find “more target populations that evoke sympathy, understanding and support,” Hannah said.

Over time, the medical marijuana conversation grew from providing symptom relief for patients with AIDS to include such conditions as cancer, pediatric epilepsy and PTSD, Hannah and his colleagues noted in a 2020 research paper. With each condition added, the movement gained wider appeal.

“It helped change the view of who a marijuana user is,” said Daniel Mallinson, a co-author on the 2020 paper and the upcoming book with Hannah, and an assistant professor at the Penn State-Harrisburg School of Public Affairs. “That makes it more palatable in these legislatures where it wouldn’t have been before.”

In 2009, New Mexico became the first state to make PTSD patients eligible for medical marijuana. The condition has since been included in most state medical marijuana programs.

The movement got another boost in 2016 when the American Legion, a veterans organization with 1.8 million members known for its conservative politics, urged Congress to remove marijuana from its list of prohibited drugs and allow research into its medical uses.

“I think knowing an organization like the American Legion supports it frankly gives [lawmakers] a little bit of political cover to do something that they may have all along supported but had concerns about voter reaction,” said Lawrence Montreuil, the group’s legislative director.

In Texas, when the Republican governor recently approved a law expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program, he tweeted: “Veterans could qualify for medical marijuana under new law. I will sign it.”

It’s smart political messaging, Hannah said. Elected officials “are always looking to paint laws they support in the most positive light, and the approval rate of veterans is universally high.”

Nationally, veteran-related marijuana bills seem to be among the few cannabis-related reforms that have gained bipartisan support. Bills with Democratic and Republican co-sponsors in Congress this session deal with promoting research into medical marijuana treatment for veterans, allowing Veterans Affairs doctors to discuss cannabis with patients in states where it is legal and protecting veterans from federal penalization for using state-legalized cannabis.

Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), who has co-sponsored two bipartisan bills concerning veterans and medical marijuana this session, said the interest of veterans is “what drew me to cannabis in the first place.”

In North Carolina, veterans like Roth and Hess, along with various advocacy groups, continue to drum up support for the medical marijuana bill. They know it’s a long battle. The bill must clear several Senate committees, a full Senate vote and then repeat the process in the House. But Roth said he’s optimistic “the veteran aspect of it will be heavily considered by lawmakers.”

An early indication of that came at a Senate committee hearing earlier this summer. Standing at the podium, Roth scrolled through his phone to show lawmakers how many of his veteran contacts were now dead due to suicide. Other veterans testified about the times they had contemplated suicide and how the dozens of prescription medications they had tried before cannabis had done little to quiet those thoughts.

The hearing room was silent as each person spoke. At the end, the lawmakers stood and gave a round of applause “for those veterans who are with us today and those who are not.”

The bill later passed that committee with a nearly unanimous vote.

How a Nursing Career with VA Changed a Former Combat Medic’s Life

How a Nursing Career with VA Changed a Former Combat Medic’s Life

Jeffrey Ballard, R.N. and Army Veteran, began his medical career as an emergency medical technician (EMT). After gaining experience as a paramedic and a licensed practical nurse (LPN), he became a registered nurse in the Emergency Department at a Level 1 Trauma Center. He was deployed to Afghanistan two years later as an infantry medic, where he sustained injuries in combat. Following a year and a half of surgeries and physical therapy back home, Ballard returned to emergency nursing, but his struggle with PTSD prompted his departure within a year.

Ballard received care at the Manchester VA Medical Center, and he decided to continue his nursing career there. “I wanted other Veterans to have the same comfort I experienced,” he said.

Today, Ballard has been working with the VA for nearly five years and serves in a program that helps elderly Veterans maintain their independence. Working alongside compassionate nurses and caring for combat Veterans like himself has helped Ballard rediscover his passion and flourish in his career. With his experience, he’s been able to better understand and build trust with Veterans in a way that generates comfort and healing for both parties. Recently, Ballard won the title “Red Sox Nurse Hero of 2018” and was invited to throw a game-opening pitch at the historic Fenway Park.

VA offers Veterans not only life-changing care but also life-changing careers. Join our team and discover the unique rewards that come from serving our nation’s heroes. To get started, search for opportunities near you and apply today.

This story was originally posted on VAntage Point. 

Essential Training Helps VA Nurse Save a Life

Essential Training Helps VA Nurse Save a Life

VA Palo Alto  nurse Karen Wall saved a woman’s life on a cross-country flight, applying the CPR techniques she learned and taught in a Basic Life Support class at her health care system.

Here is her account of the experience:

If you have ever wondered if it is a good idea to learn CPR, here is proof that it works. On August 11, 2017, I was returning home from a conference I had attended in Washington, D.C. During the Southwest flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas, I became involved in a medical emergency on board.

Whenever I travel, I always let the crew know I am a nurse in case anything happens where they need medical assistance. On this particular day, I was sitting in my seat relaxing with my shoes kicked off and talking with my seatmate, when I heard a commotion a couple rows behind me.

I heard the flight attendant say “Nurse!” I turned around, and she saw me and remembered who I was from boarding. She called me over and there was a lady in the window seat of the aisle passed out.

After grabbing my pocket mask from my carry-on (yes, I always have it with me), I went to her seat after the other people in the row cleared out. When I got to her, I tried to arouse her and get her to respond, but she was gray and cold, had vomited, was not breathing, and had no pulse when I checked her carotid artery.

I called a “code blue” and called for someone to get an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) while the flight attendant alerted the pilot so he could call for help on the ground. My seatmate, also a Veteran, jumped into the row as we worked to get the lady lying down in the row across the seats, as we had no other place that was flat enough to lay her out to begin CPR.

As we were doing this, suddenly two more registered nurses and a doctor came from their seats to help. One of the nurses (who also happened to be a VA nurse) began chest compressions (counting out loud) as I gave breaths—it was two-person CPR in action and by the book.

Once the AED arrived and was turned on, I applied the pads as directed by the AED and then plugged it in. The AED analyzed her and gave the shock just like I had recently learned in a Basic Life Support (BLS) class at work. We continued CPR and eventually got a pulse. She was breathing again! We monitored her vital signs, placed her on oxygen, and turned her on her side so she would not aspirate if she vomited again.

The pilot diverted the flight to Denver where we were met by EMT, who then took over the case and got her off the plane to take her to a hospital.

We need to continually practice our skills.

When I think of the many things I learn in class and the skills I not only learn for myself but also teach others as a BLS instructor, this experience reminded me that there is a reason we teach BLS and teach it the way we do. There is a reason for why we need to continually practice our skills and not take for granted it will never happen to us.

We never know when we will be “the one” who makes a difference in a person living or dying. When I had time to think back on the events of this day, it was as if we had taken the book out and literally followed the steps that lead to a positive outcome for real.

Never have I ever felt so proud to be a VA nurse than at the moment that passenger opened her eyes, looked at me, and smiled!


About the author: Karen Wall, EdD, RN-BC, OFS, LMFT, is a Geriatric & Dementia Care Coordinator at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System

This story was originally shared on VAntage Point. 

VA nurses are empowered to go above and beyond for their patients

VA nurses are empowered to go above and beyond for their patients

Stricken with kidney failure brought on by ALS – a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects voluntary muscle movements – Navy Veteran Richard Cole was told that his only option was relocating to a nursing home, where professionals could oversee his 24/7 health care needs. But he and his wife Yvette, who had no previous medical training, were determined to stop that from happening. So Yvette turned to the one person she thought might give them a fighting chance: her husband’s nurse, Pamela Wade.

Caring for Mr. Cole’s advanced ALS required hemodialysis, ventilators, and round-the-clock care, not typically-available options for in-home treatment. But after realizing how important it was to Richard that he go home, Nurse Wade began training his wife Yvette to care for her own husband on her own terms.

“There are certain criteria you have to pass to go home,” Wade said. “He didn’t fit any of them, but… I couldn’t say no.”

Two-and-a-half-years later, Yvette is still successfully managing her own husband’s treatment and the couple is doing great.

“Pam has been a godsend,” Yvette said. “I can’t say enough good things about her. I am just grateful she stepped in when she did.”

In working with the nation’s bravest patients, VA understands the great strength and toll that their service sometimes takes. That’s why we do everything we can to empower our nurses, doctors, technicians and administrators to adapt protocols and go ‘above and beyond,’ to care for our patients as much on their own terms as possible.

To explore open opportunities and your own empowered career with VA, visit www.vacareers.va.gov.

This story was originally posted on VAntage Point.

2018 RDML Mary F. Hall Award Presented to NMCSD Nursing Scientists

2018 RDML Mary F. Hall Award Presented to NMCSD Nursing Scientists

Two nurse scientists from the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) recently received the 2018 RDML Mary F. Hall award for nursing publication. This highly acclaimed award was created to recognize the contributions to nursing made through professional publications.

This is the second year in a row that Cmdr. Wendy Cook, a Nurse Corps scientist and head of Nursing Research and Analysis at the Clinical Investigation department at NMSCD, has won the award for co-authoring “U.S. Military Service Members’ Reasons for Deciding to Participate in Health Research,” which was published on Research in Nursing and Health.

“It’s a great feeling,” Cook told Defense Visual Information Distribution Services (DVIDS) . “I am delighted to have two separate publications recognized two years in a row, especially because I am aware of the high quality of the other nominated publications.”

Cmdr. Abigail Yablonsky, principal investigator for Naval Health Research Center’s Directorate for Military Population Health, is another recipient of the RDML Mary F. Hall award. Her publication, “Research, Readiness, and Military Parents,” which was published by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, won first place.

“Both Cmdr. Cook and Cmdr. Yablonsky have been wonderful to work with,” Capt. Heather King, Senior Nurse Researcher at NMSCD, shared with DVIDS. “They are dedicated nurse scientists who continually strive to create and disseminate new knowledge to benefit our NMSCD service members and beneficiaries.”

To read more about the NMCSD recipients of the 2018 RDML Mary F. Hall Award, click here. For more information about the Naval Medical Center San Diego, click here.