Culture Clash spoke with David Bass, a U.S. Army veteran, founder of Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana, and the director of Veterans Outreach at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) of Texas. David is vocal about his own challenges with PTSD and chronic pain after retiring from the Army in 2006, and how vital medical marijuana has been in treating these conditions.
“When I came back from serving in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division in 2005, I had some strange symptoms,” David explains. “I was paranoid, hyper-vigilant, I had nightmares, and I was drinking heavily. I was also being prescribed opioids for chronic pain from injuries I sustained on active duty. These symptoms caused me concern, so I checked myself into the Fort Hood Mental Health Facility, and I was diagnosed by a psychologist and a psychiatrist with posttraumatic stress disorder. They started me on psychotropic medications that day, so I was taking [those] and opioid medications at the same time. I didn’t like the side effects of the psychotropic medications--suicidal ideation, loss of interest in things that I used to enjoy, flat emotions and wanting to be socially isolated--and I was becoming addicted to the opioid medications.”
David’s story is not at all uncommon for veterans in the aftermath of combat. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs claims that PTSD and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) often go hand in hand— over a fifth of Veterans with PTSD also develop SUD. Like David, an enormous number of veterans also experience chronic pain as a result of injuries sustained in combat, and many are prescribed highly addictive painkillers as treatment. Providers Clinical Support System reports that in 2009, 39,032 patients in the Veterans’ Health Administration were diagnosed with opioid abuse or opioid use disorder, a dramatic increase from 26,818 in 2005. Opioid abuse, moreover, causes a host of other health issues and is one of the largest public health epidemics facing our country today.
The worsening side effects and addiction David experienced were deeply troubling. “I was really afraid that [one day] I would go to sleep and not wake up,” he says. After complaining to his doctor, who insisted he continue taking the same daily cocktail of drugs, David found a natural treatment for his symptoms—one that many veterans unfortunately do not have access to. He recalls, “I began looking around on the internet, and I saw two words that I had never seen together before: medical and marijuana. So, I started researching medical marijuana and started using it as medicine in 2012, and by the end of that year I had stopped using opioids and psychotropic medication and was only using marijuana as treatment. It was a great relief. I think those pharmaceutical drugs were going to kill me.”
David founded Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana in 2014 and has been advocating for the reform of marijuana legislation ever since. He expresses the frustration and anger his organization—and thousands of other Texans—felt in May 2019 when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick killed House Bill 63, which would reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and House Bill 1365, which would establish a more inclusive medical marijuana program in Texas. When asked about the greatest difficulty we face in changing marijuana laws, David declares, “In Texas, it’s ignorance. Our greatest enemy is real, profound ignorance about our healing plant, marijuana.”
Even amongst veterans, David states there is still resistance regarding marijuana legislation reform.“Within the military community, I would estimate it’s 60% for [reform] and 40% against it,” he says. “There are a lot of hard-headed, older veterans who still believe all the ReeferMadness propaganda from when they served in the army during the Vietnam War and the Cold War. They see marijuana as just as bad as heroin or methamphetamine, so they are very much opposed to it. But--the younger veterans especially--definitely understand that our plant is better than these pharmaceutical medications.”
“It’s a hard fight in Texas, but we’re not giving up,” David says at the end of our conversation.
“In fact, we’re winning. At my first legislative session in 2013, we were nowhere near a majority of representatives in the house supporting a civil penalty bill or a medical marijuana bill, but now we have a supermajority in the house.” Despite the challenges David and his organization have faced, change in Texas may just be right around the corner.