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.

Nurse of the Week Jacqueline Smith Finds New Calling Among Homeless Vets

Nurse of the Week Jacqueline Smith Finds New Calling Among Homeless Vets

Caring for the vulnerable and underserved is an inherent part of nursing, and many nurses have been particularly concerned about the plight of the homeless, especially during the pandemic. For some, like Nurse of the Week Jacqueline Smith, serving the homeless becomes a full-time calling. “I get up every morning with a purpose,” Smith says, “to help someone.” Inspired by the service members in her family and the struggle of homeless vets, Smith left nursing to start the Jacqueline Smith Foundation . The San Antonio program extends free food and clothing to homeless veterans and offers them classes, psychological support, and practical assistance as they try to re-enter the job market.

Of her eponymous foundation, the former nurse says, “We believe that no veteran that fought for our country should be homeless or without resources.” She’s proud of her achievement so far: “We’re a fairly new organization, and we’ve helped just over 3,000 people in just nine months.” Still, she always wishes that she could do more, admitting, “when I bring seven new outfits after you’ve been wearing the same set of clothes for the last three days, I know that’s not enough.”

Smith’s foundation is determined to make a difference in the lives of San Antonio’s homeless vets. In addition to food, clothing, and even free head-shot photos for job-seekers, the organization provides free financial literacy classes, navigation of veteran resources classes, and mental health outreach programs. On her foundation website, she states, “We partner with shelters and military organizations for homeless veterans to help those that served our country. No veteran should be homeless after putting their lives on the line for their country.”

As her classes and homeless outreach efforts bear fruit, Smith shares their achievements on her foundation’s Facebook page:

From the Jacqueline Smith Foundation Facebook page

A video interview with Jacqueline Smith is available on the San Antonio Fox site.

GWU Receives 2.5 Million for Veterans’ BSN Aid Program

GWU Receives 2.5 Million for Veterans’ BSN Aid Program

The George Washington University School of Nursing has just received the largest philanthropic gift in the school’s history. Through the William and Joanne Conway Transitioning Warriors Nursing Scholars Initiative, $2.5 million in financial aid is being made available to help eligible military veterans working toward a BSN degree. The gift is expected to support more than 65 students over the next five years.

Donors William Conway, co-founder of The Carlyle Group, and his wife Joanne are long-time supporters of nursing education. School of Nursing Dean Pamela Jeffries commented, “The Conways’ commitment to our military veterans is unwavering, and so is ours at the GW School of Nursing. As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, it’s gifts like these that enable us to grow our veteran student population and provide the resources they need to succeed.”

The aid program will be welcomed by veterans. Despite the assistance available through military benefits such as the GI Bill, many vets still find it a challenge to support themselves and their families when they re-enter the civilian world and attempt to pursue a degree. The Conways are happy to offer a helping hand. “The Transitioning Warriors Nursing Scholars Initiative is designed to reward the brave men and women of our armed forces who seek to continue their service to our country as civilian nurses,” Mr. Conway stated. GWU President Thomas LeBlanc responded, “We are grateful to the Conways for enabling this investment when our nation’s nursing workforce and veterans need it most.”

Founded 10 years ago, the George Washington University School of Nursing is currently the sixth ranked school in the US News and World Report assessment of online graduate nursing programs. The gift was presented in May, while the school was celebrating its 10th anniversary.

For further details on this story, visit GWToday at the University website.

Answering the Call: The Role of Nurses in Addressing Suicide Prevention and Mental Health

Answering the Call: The Role of Nurses in Addressing Suicide Prevention and Mental Health

The importance of mental health in achieving overall wellness cannot be overstated. Mental health is defined as a state of physical, emotional, social, and psychological well-being in which the individual is productive, able to adapt to changes or adversity, able to maintain fulfilling relationships with others, and contributes positively to society. In the past 20 years, this nation has seen a steady and alarming increase in the number of people who cannot meet that description. The lack of access to treatment, along with a general need for education and decreased stigma around mental health have greatly increased the risk of undiagnosed or delayed treatment of depression and other mental illnesses. Exasperating the problem are low rates of health literacy and a reluctance to seek help due to lack of health insurance. Additional risks of depression include poverty, family history, trauma, poor education, and multiple losses.

The two populations most susceptible to this type of illness are the ones most inherently vulnerable and difficult to diagnose: adolescents and veterans. In these groups particularly, depressed individuals frequently deny the severity of their symptoms and seek bodily medical care, hoping a physical condition has caused their psychic discomfort. While the situation is dire, nurses are here to help. With a unique view into day-to-day patient experiences and clinical research, nursing leaders are in a distinct position to provide high-level direction on solving problems at scale. Our nation’s most vulnerable populations have plenty of challenges, but increased risk of mental illness is one nurses are making strides to alleviate.

Adolescents and Young Adults

In children and adolescents, depression may manifest through irritability, aggression, or poor school performance. As “digital natives” who have never lived in a world without high-tech forms of communication and social media as part of daily life, children and adolescents are more exposed to bullying and peer comparison than ever before. Additionally, this age group has seen increased sleep disturbance and adverse health outcomes related to high levels of screen time, affecting physical, cognitive, and behavioral health outcomes during this vulnerable stage of development. These prolonged periods of sleep disturbances have been associated with poor mental health, suicidal thoughts, and self-injury.

Suicide is an act of violence against self and for every successful suicide there are multiple survivors of attempts. Nurses both in hospital psych wards and in decision-making roles behind the scenes are leading the charge to reduce the rate of suicide and attempted suicide in teenagers and young adults. Jonas Scholar Alumni Kari McDonald, PhD, is a prime example of the power of nurses in making progress on behalf of at-risk youth communities, dedicating her research to LGBTQ adolescent mental health and suicide prevention. Additionally, public awareness campaigns that help the public and teens understand warning signs and train the primary care workforce to screen for suicide ideation, intent, and risk have the potential for significant positive impact.

Our Nation’s Veterans

Another especially vulnerable group is our veterans, who are disproportionally at risk for suicide. In 2017, The Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that in 2014 on average 20 veterans died by suicide each day. Six of the 20 were recent users of VHA services and about 67% of veteran deaths were the result of firearm injuries. Due to the experiences they have been exposed to, veterans have a complex set of medical, social, and psychological needs, and require tailored solutions to their mental illnesses.

Jonas Scholar Alumni Cynthia Knight, a primary care nurse practitioner in the Home Based Primary Care Program at Veterans Affairs (VA), is part of the solution. In alignment with the VA’s plan to integrate mental health services into primary care, Knight explores the needs of the older adult veterans with depressive symptoms and assesses how to bridge gaps in care to improve health outcomes. It is the work of nurses like Knight that will lead to actionable breakthroughs in suicide prevention for this at-risk population.

Nurses are a critical workforce in helping form additional mental health training and infrastructure, which can expand access across the breadth of patient care from hospitals and primary care to communities and school-based health. The American Academy of Nursing recommends funding for research that supports developing and testing new interventions. It also encourages the training of nurses and other health care professionals committed to raising public mental health awareness about the dangers of sleep disturbance. Nurses not only play a critical role in providing timely, effective, and comprehensive services, but they are valuable advocates to those living with depression and mental illness. By utilizing nurses to help address mental health, we can promote prevention and promote mental health for people at all levels of risk.

Rutgers University–Camden Receives Funding to Prepare Military Veterans for Civilian Careers as Nurses

Rutgers University–Camden Receives Funding to Prepare Military Veterans for Civilian Careers as Nurses

Rutgers University–Camden recently announced a new program which will prepare military veterans for civilian careers as nurses who will care specifically for other veterans. The program is funded by a three-year, nearly $1.5 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Military veterans are uniquely equipped to care for other veterans thanks to their shared experiences like overseas deployments, a demanding lifestyle, and challenges such as health problems or needing to find a new career when they transition to civilian life.

The new program being offered at Rutgers University–Camden is the only program of its kind in the Delaware Valley and the state of New Jersey. The program is called Veteran Nurses in Primary Care and focuses on understanding veterans and preparing veterans for a career as a civilian. The program will also focus on providing education to community-based primary-care registered nurses and other clinicians, nursing faculty, and clinical instructors to help meet the needs of veteran clients.

Kevin Emmons, a Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden clinical associate professor and a U.S. Army veteran who currently serves as a member of the Army Reserve, tells news.camden.rutgers.edu, “We recognized a need for health-care services for veterans that would help bridge the relationship between them and the health-care provider. One of the best ways to do that is by having the health-care provider, and in this case the nurse, be a veteran themselves. This can instantly build a bond between the veteran client and nurse.”

Applications are currently being accepted for the first cohort of students who will begin taking classes in the fall semester. The first cohort will include eight students, the second year of the program will increase the number of students to 12, and the third year of the program will accept 18 students. 

Rutgers University–Camden is the only higher education institution in New Jersey to earn the distinction of being named as a Purple Heart University by the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The honor recognizes the university for its services to veterans and their families. Veterans participating in the program will receive comprehensive support to assist them in their students, including mentors and advisors from the School of Nursing and the university’s Office of Veterans Affairs.

Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden students usually perform their clinical rotations in community and hospital settings, but through the Veteran Nurses in Primary Care program, students will learn while working at the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services, Cooper University Hospital, the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia, and Volunteers of America’s Home of the Brave program.

To learn more about the Rutgers University–Camden’s new program which will prepare military veterans for civilian careers as nurses who will care specifically for other veterans, visit here