In discussions of legalizing marijuana, Iraq war veteran says he and others should be included

As Connecticut debates whether to legalize recreational marijuana, Iraq veteran Steve Kennedy of Fairfield said vets like him are being left out of the conversation.

Kennedy, the head of the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, provided testimony in support of a proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana for recreational use.

"Connecticut should join other states in recognizing that full legalization is the best way to ensure access to cannabis for veterans and others with palliative needs. Full legalization is also the only way to prevent unnecessary contacts with the criminal justice system," he said.

Cannabis has been shown to have therapeutic value for a "significant" number of service-related conditions like chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said, citing a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The General Assembly's General Law and Judiciary committees held marathon public hearings Friday on legalizing recreational marijuana for adults. The General Law committee also took up proposed changes to the state's medical marijuana program. Medical marijuana became legal in Connecticut in 2012.

The issue of marijuana is a tricky one for veterans — it's still illegal federally, so doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot recommend or prescribe it. However, the VA has eased some restrictions. VA doctors now are allowed to talk with vets about medical marijuana. And veterans who use medical marijuana still can receive care and benefits from the VA.

When a vet who gets care at the VA wants to access medical marijuana, he or she must go outside the VA system and find a new doctor, whom they must pay out of pocket, to certify him or her for the state's medical marijuana program, Kennedy said.

He suggested Connecticut only require vets to provide VA medical records showing they have a qualifying diagnosis to be able to access the medical marijuana program, as is the case in Illinois, for example.

Conley Monk, a Vietnam veteran from New Haven, submitted written testimony to the Judiciary Committee in support of legalizing recreational marijuana. Monk said he returned to Connecticut in 1971 after serving in Vietnam with at the time was undiagnosed PTSD and an opioid addiction. His family helped him get clean, and he later became a drug treatment counselor. He continued to struggle with the symptoms of PTSD: anxiety, sleeplessness and flashbacks.

“I found cannabis was the only thing that helped,” Monk testified, saying he used it “off and on” throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

He said throughout that time he led a productive life, getting married and continuing his work as a drug counselor, and worked toward getting a college degree. “Cannabis was one of the tools that allowed me to manage my PTSD symptoms well enough to rebuild my life, especially after recovering from an opioid addiction,” he said.

In 1982 he was arrested for marijuana possession and sentenced to 18 months' probation. He stopped using cannabis, and later started abusing opioids again. He again overcame his addiction.

“For those of us veterans who have struggled with PTSD and opioid addiction, cannabis works. It reduces anxiety, pain and dependency on more harmful substances, and allows us to live better lives,” he said.

Both Monk and Kennedy said Connecticut should ease access to medical marijuana for all veterans, including those with other-than-honorable discharges. Both have advocated for this group of vets, arguing services such as mental health care through the VA are critical to their getting better and reintegrating into society. They both were instrumental in getting Connecticut to provide state veteran benefits to this population.

The Department of Consumer Protection, which administers Connecticut's medical marijuana program, does not keep track of whether or not someone is a veteran when they register, so there's no way to know exactly how many Connecticut veterans are using medical marijuana.

While the VA has funded marijuana studies, none of them has looked at the drug's therapeutic potential. Two federal veterans' organizations, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, are in favor of expanding research. But the VA has said that, given federal prohibition, there's regulatory barriers to studying marijuana.

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that Conley Monk submitted written testimony.

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