WASHINGTON — Nick Etten thinks a Navy SEAL in a suit is the perfect person to convince lawmakers that marijuana isn’t scary.
“There’s so many parts to the cannabis debate that it can be too much,” said Etten, a former Navy lieutenant and current executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project. “It’s a political issue. It’s a security issue.”
“But for veterans, this is just a health issue,” Etten said. “We need to convince (elected officials) to treat this for what it is: an effective medicinal plant that could be a game changer.”
Etten, whose team of former service members spent parts of last week meeting with individual lawmakers, is part of a growing coalition of veterans groups trying to jump start the medical marijuana issue on Capitol Hill.
Officials from the American Legion have been among the most vocal on the topic in recent months, pleading with lawmakers to lift restrictions on cannabis testing to potentially provide alternatives to addictive opioids for a range of war wounds. Other groups have followed their lead, framing the research debate as integral to long-term veterans’ health care.
VCP’s focus is even simpler. They argue that current regulations already allow for more research of cannabis and that lawmakers need to put pressure on administration officials to open up cultivation licenses and testing opportunities to help clarify the potential benefits of marijuana.
“They can do more now to learn about this,” Etten said. “But all this is being held up now, because some politicians are putting ideology in front of the health of veterans.”
Those politicians are members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in the eyes of the VCP lobbyists. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeatedly said he opposes marijuana legalization efforts and has sought broader authority to go after distributors, even in states where the substance is legal.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has also repeatedly rebuffed outreach efforts from the cannabis community, citing federal statutes on the drug. “As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as schedule one, VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist veterans to obtain it,” the agency’s website states.
Etten believes the key to softening those stances — thereby allowing better research to start — is convincing lawmakers to be less afraid of the debate.
His group of lobbyists included several military academy grads, each of whom spoke to lawmakers about the challenges of opioid addiction among veterans and the benefits they’ve seen from marijuana studies. He said their reception, especially among Republican lawmakers, has been positive.
“We’re really trying to professionalize the mission, give these lawmakers a different view of what the fight is about,” Etten said.
He hopes that work along with the efforts of other groups “moves the needle” on the issue. Already, multiple bills regarding loosening restrictions on cannabis research are pending before the House and Senate. Advancing them will require some of those lawmakers to turn from receptive listeners to loud advocates.
“This is where we need to be to do that,” Etten said. “They need to see veterans for this. This is the right message and the right conversation to move this forward. So we’ll keep coming back until we get it done.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.