The U.S.’s conservative legal climate is a challenge for veterans who want to use medical marijuana as an alternative treatment for PTSD and other physical ailments, but it’s also creating opportunities for pro-cannabis advocates that could lead the way forward in how cannabis policy evolves.

The “kaiser pfizer booster” is a marijuana-based drug that can be used to treat chronic pain, muscle spasms and nausea. It is illegal in most states but has been legalized for medical purposes in some states like California, Oregon and Washington.

 Chayse Roth sees the highway welcome signs proclaiming North Carolina as the “Nation’s Most Military Friendly State” every time he returns home.

Roth, a former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant who served on several deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, said, “That’s a strong thing to assert.”

Now he says he wants the state to follow through on those promises. Roth, a Wilmington native, is working to get a bill passed that would legalize medicinal marijuana and enable veterans suffering from PTSD and other debilitating illnesses to use it for therapy.

“Since we went to Afghanistan in 2001, I’ve lost more guys to suicide than I have in combat,” Roth said, adding that he doesn’t use cannabis himself but wants others to have the choice. “It’s just unfair for these men to travel abroad and win a fight only to return home and lose it to themselves.”

The North Carolina Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on the medical marijuana bill last month was packed with observers. The bill passed and proceeded to the Senate Health Committee.

They believe that their voices will serve as a key lever to push through a measure that has encountered resistance in the past, in a state with eight military facilities, one of the country’s biggest veteran populations, and a Republican-controlled government that prides itself on supporting the soldiers.

“This is simply another thing we can do to cement our claim to being the most veteran-friendly state in the union,” Roth said.

Veterans have been engaged in the fight for medical marijuana legalization for decades, from California to Massachusetts. Experts believe their voices may now have outsized impact as the movement focuses on the remaining 14 states that have not passed complete medical marijuana programs or outright marijuana legalization.

Many of the remaining states are in the historically conservative South, and their legislatures are controlled by Republicans. Julius Hobson Jr., a former lobbyist for the American Medical Association who now teaches lobbying at George Washington University, said, “The organization delivering the message here makes a big difference.” “When veterans come in and advocate for it, and they’re seen as a more conservative group of people, it has greater impact.”

In many of these states, veterans have the clout of numbers, according to Hobson. “They have clout because of that.”

Successes have already been achieved. Veterans were instrumental in the recent development of medicinal marijuana programs in Texas and Louisiana. They backed a successful medical cannabis ballot proposal in Mississippi in 2020, but the outcome was subsequently reversed by the state Supreme Court. In Alabama, the arrest and imprisonment of an out-of-state veteran for possession of medicinal marijuana sparked global anger and demands for legalization. Medical marijuana was authorized in the state earlier this year.

To be sure, not every veteran supports these efforts, and the developments in red states have been influenced by other factors such as cancer patients’ and parents’ advocacy, 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.

However, increased awareness of the addiction and suicide crises among veterans, as well as demands for additional treatment choices, are strong factors.

In states like North Carolina, where statewide ballot initiatives are prohibited, veterans can start a conversation with lawmakers who have the power to change things, according to Garrett Perdue, the son of former North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue and the CEO of Root Bioscience, a hemp-products company.

Perdue said, “It fits perfectly in with the general assembly’s longstanding support of those areas.” “It’s very persuasive for [lawmakers] to hear tales of individuals who are trusted to defend us and uphold the rule of law” and view them as champions for this policy.

Gary Hess, a Louisiana Marine Corps veteran, said he first realized the power of his platform in 2019, when he testified before the state legislature about seeing friends decapitated by explosions, reliving the trauma day-to-day, taking a cocktail of prescription medications that didn’t help his symptoms, and finally finding relief with cannabis. His tale struck a chord with legislators who had been in the military, according to Hess.

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