SARASOTA HERALD TRIBUNE: House candidate David Shapiro wants legal cannabis for veterans
Removing marijuana’s federal schedule 1 status is a campaign issue in the 16th Congressional District race.
SARASOTA — Candidates for the District 16 congressional race are staking out divergent positions on the question of whether marijuana should be removed from Schedule 1 status to afford military veterans another potentially potent option for dealing with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, something explored recently by the Herald-Tribune and supported by a growing field of veterans and national veterans organizations in the face of an epidemic of military suicides.
The Herald-Tribune report, “Warriors Rise Up,” addressed the suicide phenomenon that has claimed the lives of more than 75,000 veterans and uniformed military personnel from 2005 to 2015, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs study released in June.
Survivors of war in Afghanistan and Iraq shared horrific tales of addiction to VA-dispensed painkillers. Some spoke of being reduced in rank or drummed out of the military for seeking pain relief from cannabis. They insist marijuana is far less dangerous and often more effective than prescription “combat cocktails,” some of which can trigger suicidal ideation. All who participated in the story were exasperated by the categorization of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with no medicinal value. In demanding legal access, they want the plant descheduled altogether.
Democrat David Shapiro, the Siesta Key attorney running against incumbent Rep. Vern Buchanan, favors removing marijuana’s Schedule 1 status, which equates the plant with heroin and as something more dangerous than Schedule II cocaine. Buchanan says more research into medical marijuana is warranted, and he does not support changing cannabis’ status.
“I think he didn’t hear the stories of the people who were at that symposium you held the other day,” said Shapiro, referring to Buchanan’s position and a Sept. 6 panel discussion stemming from “Warriors Rise Up.” “And the fight of the families of these individuals who went to war for us, and come home and actually take their lives — 20 a day. And the stories are the same across the country. That’s a study in and of itself.”
But Buchanan’s office said his approach is appropriate and that he has advocated other actions to help veterans while studies are done.
“We support the position taken by Drug Free Manatee that more research is warranted,” Buchanan’s spokeswoman Sally Dionne said in statement to the Herald-Tribune. “In the meantime, Vern sponsored legislation to promote legal alternatives to opioids, greater research and prevention efforts, expanded access to treatment for those in recovery and better screening to catch illegal drugs before they enter the country.
“He also co-sponsored the Veterans Overmedication Prevention Act, which would require the Veterans Affairs Department to review the deaths of all veterans treated by the VA who died by suicide or from a drug overdose in the last five years. This legislation is critical to learning if prescription drugs, specifically opioid painkillers, are a contributing factor in suicide-related deaths among veterans.”
Research, formal and informal
Last year, the National Academy of Sciences announced that marijuana’s Schedule 1 label is actually crippling scientific research.
In November, the American Legion, the nation’s oldest veterans service organization with 2.2 million members, formally urged Congress to deschedule marijuana in order to expedite that research. VA physicians are prohibited from giving cannabis to veterans, even though the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s website reports no deaths attributable to marijuana.
Shapiro is not a veteran, but his late father was a Marine who survived the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. His dad also was a volunteer at a VA hospital, where he mingled with younger veterans recuperating from combat in the Global War on Terror. Shapiro, who often joined those conversations, said “I knew of the addictions, opioids, oxycodone, but I knew that from my own work as a personal injury lawyer, so I knew the dangers.”
He eventually began hearing veterans talk about how cannabis relieved pain and nausea. At the Herald-Tribune’s Hot Topics conversation in Sarasota two weeks ago, Shapiro listened to Fort Lauderdale’s Janine Lutz describe how her son Johnny was prescribed a dangerous benzodiazepine that the VA’s own website warned against administering. Diagnosed with PTSD, the former Marine who saw action in Afghanistan and Iraq took his life in 2013 at age 24. Lutz sued the VA for wrongful death and was awarded a cash settlement.
“We’ve got to get (cannabis) off Schedule 1 …,” Shapiro said. “If we can avoid that story, of the woman’s loss of her son to suicide — and we know they’re committing suicide, 20 a day, and we can prevent it with the use of medical marijuana — I say let’s do it, by all means.
“Let’s at least see what we already know, the empirical information and data that’s available to us, see the common thread, and start working toward a solution. So I would say to (Buchanan), the research to some degree is already there.”
The roots of Schedule 1
Marijuana was arbitrarily categorized as a Schedule 1 drug by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. A year later, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on cannabis’ ability to relieve pressure for glaucoma patients. America’s first official medical marijuana patient was registered in 1975. Today, more than 2 million Americans have medical marijuana cards.
Dozens of bills to liberalize marijuana laws are under discussion on Capitol Hill. In an especially notable move last week led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican, the House Judiciary Committee voted to propose legislation that would force recalcitrant Attorney General Jeff Sessions to approve at least two applications to grow marijuana for federal research.
In 2016, the DEA agreed to accept bids from private growers that would end the 50-year marijuana research monopoly owned by the University of Mississippi and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which had been criticized for producing substandard crops. After 26 applications were filed, Sessions ordered the DEA to suspend the screening process earlier this year and has been stalling on licensing ever since. Gaetz’s Medical Cannabis Research Act bill would also directly empower the VA to conduct clinical trials.
“While this vote marks a step forward,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, “it must also be acknowledged that despite existing barriers to research, ample studies already exist to contradict cannabis’ federal Schedule 1 status as a substance without medical utility, lacking acceptable safety, and possessing a high potential of abuse. More clinical research is welcome, but unfortunately science has never driven marijuana policy.”
Recent moves have limits
Two weeks ago, two Democratic U.S. senators, Florida’s Bill Nelson and Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, filed a bill that would allow the VA to prescribe cannabis for veterans living in the 30 states where medical marijuana is already legal.
But with Schedule 1 in place, those options would not extend to active-duty troops. According to the VA, 3.8 uniformed personnel kill themselves each day.
Shapiro, a political novice, said Nelson’s proposal is “a step. And sometimes you’ve got to take that first step. And then people start becoming less afraid. So I think that sometimes you’ve got to go for the half loaf, if that’s what it takes to get the whole thing.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who hopes to unseat Nelson in the Senate, has not responded to the Herald-Tribune’s request for his stance on legal access for veterans.
“Well, I’ll deal with that when I make it to the Senate,” he said at a press conference in June.
Scott’s office has been embroiled in litigation attempting to prevent Florida’s medical marijuana patients from smoking the plant, despite a 2016 referendum approved by 71 percent of the voters without stipulations.