Veterans Push for Medical Marijuana in Conservative South

Twitter icon

 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.

“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.”

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.

In a state that’s home to eight military bases, one 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, a Marine Corps veteran from Louisiana, said he first realized the power of his platform in 2019, when he testified in 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.

e-mail icon Facebook icon Twitter icon LinkedIn icon Reddit icon
Rate this article: 
Regional Marijuana News: