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Ex-Navy SEAL from Chicago area leading veterans’ battle for cannabis access

Nick Etten, executive director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, traveling through Panama while serving as a member of SEAL Team 3. | Provided photo

A former Navy SEAL from the Chicago area is leading the push to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level in an effort to give war-ravaged service members access to pot-based treatments through the Veterans Health Administration.

Nick Etten is a far cry from the stony pot activists of past generations. The west suburban native graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, before conducting counternarcotics operations in the 1990s as a member of SEAL Team 3. After completing his service, Etten earned a master’s degree from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and began working in the finance industry.

During that time, he learned about the healing effects of cannabis and the legal barriers that stood in the way of many veterans accessing it. Compelled to serve his comrades, Etten left the private sector and started the Veterans Cannabis Project last year. The Chicago and Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit aims to change federal pot laws to expand treatment options for former soldiers, many of whom served during the War on Terror in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Cannabis offers a transformational solution for veterans with respect to the current veteran health crisis and some of the conditions that our community is dealing with,” Etten said.

Nick Etten speaks on Capitol Hill last November. | Provided photo

The VHA was largely unprepared to treat the influx of young combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, which Etten called the “signature wounds of the wars.” Doctors often used highly addictive opioids and benzodiazapines to treat veterans’ symptoms instead of their underlying conditions.

Meanwhile, suicide and overdose rates among veterans spiked well above the national average. In 2014, an average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day at a rate 22 percent higher than other U.S. adults, according to data released last year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Vets are also twice as likely to die from accidental drug overdoses, according to a 2011 VA study.

Etten estimated there would be half as many suicides and overdoses among veterans if pot were “embraced as medicine” at the federal level. Despite a majority of states having medical pot laws on the books, the VA can’t recommend or prescribe cannabis to their roughly 9 million patients because it’s classified as a dangerous Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, a piece of Nixon-era legislation.

Due to the lack of coverage, some veterans are left to use their own money to buy weed from dispensaries or on the black market, while others can’t afford the drug. What’s more, some veterans won’t even touch pot, fearing they’ll lose government benefits if they fail a drug test. Nevertheless, Etten noticed that vets are increasingly choosing cannabis-based treatments over other medications, with many reporting that the drug has improved their lives by helping them kick opioids or manage PTSD.

“I saw time after time again veterans self-selecting that [cannabis] was a safer, more responsible choice for them as medicine,” Etten said.

Nick Etten and the Veterans Cannabis Project team pose for a photo during meetings at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. | Provided photo

A survey conducted last November by the American Legion, the world’s largest veterans organization, found that 92 percent of veteran households supported cannabis research. In addition, 82 percent of veteran households supported the national legalization of medical cannabis.

“If 82 percent isn’t a mandate, I’m not sure what it’s gonna take,” Etten said.

To advance the group’s agenda, Etten and other service members travel to D.C. to discuss cannabis policy and share their personal experiences with lawmakers.

Ryan Miller, an Army vet who serves on VCP’s advisory board, was seriously injured by a roadside bomb while serving in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2007. After three years of treatment, he weaned off powerful opioids before undergoing surgery to amputate a leg that was injured in the blast. Miller viewed cannabis as a “novelty” before moving to northern California in 2014 and getting his medical card a few months later.

“Suddenly, I’m taking this cannabis and my body’s feeling a little bit better,” Miller said.

He later got involved with local veterans in California’s Bay Area who told him that cannabis had literally saved their lives. After initially taking the claims with a grain of salt, he started viewing pot as a “powerful substance” with strong medicinal benefits.

“While I never used cannabis to get off opiates or for the acute combat pain, I certainly see the benefits in some of the emotional, psychological things — residues from service and getting wounded in experience — and certainly some of the physical things,” said Miller, who now works in the legal cannabis industry.

The combat veteran, who has advanced degrees from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, also helps shape VCP’s policy positions.

Ryan Miller serving in Kuwait in 2007. | Provided photo

The organization is pushing lawmakers to pass the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, a measure introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in April and unanimously passed by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in May. The bill would authorize the agency to “conduct and support research on the efficacy and safety of certain forms of cannabis and cannabis delivery” for VA-enrolled veterans with chronic pain and PTSD.

The Republican-controlled House Committee on Rules has since stifled the measure, which doesn’t include language that would federally reclassify the drug. In an Op-Ed published last week in The Hill, Etten called on President Donald Trump to break the “political logjam” by pushing Republican leaders to act on behalf of veterans.

“Veterans have been pleading with members of Congress and Trump administration officials to enact a law that will give them legal access,” Etten wrote. “It’s time for Republican leaders to acknowledge that federal cannabis reform is inevitable and it’s time for comprehensive action.”

The self-described Republican said he was encouraged that Democratic leaders have started supporting some of the issues his organization is lobbying for. He noted that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer introduced a bill recently that would decriminalize pot at the federal level by removing the drug from the list of scheduled substances under the Controlled Substances Act.

“In the end, we’ve gotta change the minds of Republicans,” he said.

For more news about cannabis and the marijuana industry go to chicago.suntimes.com/section/cannabis/.