Veterans Meet in Austin to Demand Passage of an All-Inclusive Medical Marijuana Policy in Texas

Romana Harding told her story of attempted suicide to her fellow veterans gathered at the Texas Capitol Veterans Monument on Veterans Day in Austin. A survivor of sexual abuse while serving in the U.S. Navy, Harding said she was tired of the enduring shame she felt. The prescription pain pills weren’t helping, so she put a gun underneath her chin. One day, she was sure, she'd pull the trigger.

An uncle and World War II veteran convinced her to try marijuana instead of a bullet. The drug saved her life, she says.

The veterans behind Operation Trapped have organized behind the idea that marijuana can help where prescription pain pills often lead to addiction. The group is rallying to support legislation being introduced this session that would extend the current medical marijuana law to include people who suffer from chronic pain, post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

It’s the operation’s second year to gather for a parade and press conference on Veterans Day in Austin. This year they’ve collected 300 empty prescription bottles from 300 veterans to show that veterans need the Texas legislature to enact a more inclusive medical marijuana policy.  They plan to collect a thousand more.

“Texas veterans should not be treated like criminals simply for treating a disability they received for defending this country,” according to the operation’s website. “Texas shouldn’t wait any longer to offer a workable, compassionate program that benefits all in our state.”

Heather Fazio, the Texas political director of Marijuana Policy Project, says veterans need a safer alternative to prescription opioids, which often lead to addiction and overdoses.

“Last legislative session was a historic moment, with the government acknowledging cannabis is a medicine,” Fazio says. “We are now able to have conversation in a meaningful way. We want to talk to them about making it more inclusive.”

The “Compassionate Use Program” passed last legislative session offers patients with intractable epilepsy access to low-THC cannabis oil, with a prescription.

This new legislation affected patients such as 11-year-old Alex Bortell, who was forced to move to Colorado to gain access to a higher level cannabis oil to control her epilepsy. The stronger drug saved her life and extended the number of consecutive days she could go without seizures from three to 346 days.

In February, she told a crowd of medical marijuana supporters in Fort Worth: “I’m probably the only kid in Texas right now who can stand in front of thousands of people and say that I use medical marijuana every day and my Republican parents are proud of me.”

The healing powers of medical marijuana were mentioned in several veterans’ stories at the Operation Trapped press conference on Veterans Day in Austin. Similar to Harding, Amanda Berard, a 29-year-old veteran, told her story of developing PTSD from military sexual trauma.

Berard claimed she’s been waiting eight months to see her doctor at the VA. But it’s not the pills she’s been prescribed that are helping her cope, she says. It’s the marijuana she picked up in Colorado. “It lets me leave my house,” she says. “With the medication the VA gives me, I don’t have the liberty.”

Dr. Scott Bier, an Army veteran who works as a Houston-area emergency room surgeon, claims Texas needs to pass a more inclusive medical marijuana law because it is a safer alternative. “We are really not utilizing this very safe medicine for the treatment of people who really need it,” he says.

The veterans supporting medical marijuana in Texas aren’t simply gathering empty pill bottles and sharing stories at press conferences either. They’ve also sent letters to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the president of the Texas Senate.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. David Bass told Patrick that he was disabled after his deployments to Iraq and prescribed opioid medications for chronic pain and psychotropic drugs for PTSD.

“The opioid medication was addictive and the psychotropic drugs had terrible side effects,” Bass wrote in his May 11 letter to Patrick. “I researched medical cannabis and discovered that thousands of veterans testify that cannabis is effective for chronic pain and PTSD. I started using medical grade cannabis and found out for myself that it is effective to relieve my chronic pain and the symptoms of PTSD.

“Unfortunately I am labeled a criminal in our state because I choose to use cannabis. I am not a criminal. I am a retired military officer, a homeowner, a taxpayer and a voter.”