More than 120,000 veterans have died by suicide since September 11th, 2001. For every year on record from 2001-2019, according to the most recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), between 5,800 to 6,500 veterans took their own lives. The non-veteran suicide rate has jumped more than 45%, with suicide now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
In that same time period, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the U.S. veteran population declined by ⅓, from 26 million to 18 million. The VA budget was $48 billion in 2001 and has quintupled since then; in their most recent FY2022 request, the VA is asking for $270 billion.
Untold numbers of veterans have been lost to fatal overdose. Despite the resources available, the VA does not track those outcomes, but the CDC projects the United States will see close to 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021 alone. The overall fatal overdose rate in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled from 1999, at 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people, to 21.5 in 2019.
These numbers and statistics are meant to illuminate what has been an unmitigated and extravagantly financed public health disaster, with veterans as the canaries in the coal mine warning of preventable deaths by suicide and overdose. Of the 18 million veterans estimated to be living today, there are millions suffering from severe and complex conditions that dramatically impact their lives. The military is a trauma generator–in war or peace.
I have made my peace with the hypocrisy of a nation that uses veterans as political props and rhetorical devices while they struggle and die, privately and publicly, without any sign of change. From the Bonus Army to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange to the post-9/11 generation and the promise of years of struggle to get toxic exposure fully recognized–so it goes, same as it ever was, time is a flat circle. There are many aphorisms to describe the cyclical and adversarial nature of veterans seeking care and benefits.
I manage post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury, myself. It’s sometimes difficult to pull a particular triggering instance out of something I did not admit I dealt with for a decade. It has always felt like a confluence of events and experiences.
The steady deaths of friends and colleagues in combat and training over years and multiple deployments.
Knowledge of the brutal and stupid violence we meted out on people we were supposed to be helping and the grotesque waste of life-saving resources on temporary comfort for a few.
Returning to a society that had checked out long ago and did not know or particularly care about what the Global War on Terrorism looked like on the ground, but was more than happy to sanitize and sell it back to us.
The reappearance of the specter of death that was so present while deployed, this time in the form of suicide and overdose stalking us at home.
CANNABIS FOR VETERANS
That was all in my head the first time I smoked high-THC cannabis at the age of 25 after seven years and multiple tours in the Army. I was pretty high for a solid hour before a serious craving for food and then got 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep–which for me was an anomaly. Part of the relief I experienced came through no longer being tormented by violent, recurring dreams of failing to protect others while I survived.
My road to becoming an advocate started that day, unbeknownst to me. Today, I have spoken with thousands of veterans across the country, spanning every conceivable demographic, about their experiences with cannabis.
Every single one experienced the same pattern of military service, trauma, dealing with poorly (or un-)managed physical and mental health symptoms that resulted and desperation that comes close to ending in suicide or overdose. It is at that point that some veterans seek out or are convinced to try cannabis. It is not a silver bullet, but a powerful tool–and for many at that stage on their path, it is a literal lifesaver.
But cannabis alone will not stop our national suicide and overdose crisis. It is a complex plant that provides a potent medicine even in its crudest forms, but there has never been a successful one-size-fits-all approach to treating people humanely and effectively. Education and community, we have seen, can play a critical role in providing people stability. Guaranteed income, housing, and healthcare have been responsible for saving many, even though the money is often not enough to meet basic needs, the housing is substandard, and the healthcare is insufficient.
Continuing to prohibit cannabis at any level of government, however, is directly contributing to the unnecessary anguish of millions of veterans and patients nationwide. Criminalization always falls hardest on those already marginalized, particularly on Black, Latino, and financially unstable Americans–which, as it turns out, also includes literally millions of veterans as well. That explicitly racist origin of our drug policies is just one more link in a long chain of government actions that have brutalized and stripped the freedom, livelihoods, and lives of tens of millions of our neighbors.
If you are inclined to think about veterans today, think about what it means that we are dying at such high rates from preventable causes despite billions of dollars spent trying to reverse course. Think about why so many veterans have stood up publicly, sometimes at great personal risk, to speak about the positive impact that cannabis has had on them. Think about all those incarcerated over a plant and those who left us too soon, who cannabis might have been able to help.
Think about that today. Feel that sadness and anger and frustration and let it fuel you to stand up for yourself and others. Realize that people–including people you love–will suffer today, tomorrow, and every day after for lack of understanding of and access to a plant; let that harden your resolve to fight for a better future. Do not succumb to apathy or indecision–the good and right thing has been staring us in the face for too long. It is time to act and put an end to cannabis prohibition.
Eric Goepel is the founder of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, a self-funded and independent advocacy group working to end cannabis prohibition and provide accessible and affordable cannabis to all in need.
Learn more about Veterans Cannabis Coalition HERE
You can read more of Eric’s contributions to Beard Bros Media HERE