Life D. Griffith founded Veterans Health Services (VHS) exactly one year ago with the goal of providing cannabis education and resources to the greater Los Angeles County veterans community. A career serviceman who spent nineteen years as a U.S. Army combat medic, Griffith served in a broad assortment of leadership and staff positions, and then worked from 2012 to 2015 as a legal administrative specialist and minority veteran program coordinator for the West Los Angeles Department of Veterans Affairs. mg talked to Griffith on the eve of Veterans Day 2016.
What led you to become an advocate for using cannabis to help veterans?
The vision came to me while I was stationed at Camp Black Horse east of Kabul, Afghanistan. I was reading information about cannabis used as a medicine, and I thought it could really aid my fellow veterans if they were educated about its natural value and how it was used medicinally before it was made illegal. The motto of combat medics is “Conserve the Fighting Strength,” so I aspired to extend my hand and knowledge to preserve the fighting spirit of those in need, especially my fellow veterans.
How acute is the current need among veterans to find alternative medicines like cannabis? Did your time at the VA play into convincing you veterans need an outspoken cannabis advocate?
There is a critical need among veterans to find holistic alternatives to support them with their medical issues. Considering all of the demonstrations about cannabis use from veterans, you would think common sense would kick in at the VA and other federal agencies, but giving us access is not in their best interest because of the political and financial interest of big business. So advocates like myself must tell the truth in real-time and share up-to-date information so veterans can live longer and have a better quality of life.
I operated in various positions within the VA system when I became a Legal Administration Specialist and Minority Veteran Program Coordinator at the Los Angeles Regional Office. I noticed many veterans were coming in to see me full of reservation, miserable and uninformed about alternative treatments. I even had a female veteran suffering from PTSD and military sexual trauma come in with ten different types of drugs VA doctors had prescribed. She told me she desired to get off the drugs and find something else that could help her. At that instant, as a fellow disabled veteran, I had to do something to give her hope and I decided to become a serious advocate for medical cannabis use.
Do minority service members and veterans face greater obstacles to obtaining help, as minorities often do in the larger society?
Yes, minority service members and veterans definitely face serious scrutiny when it comes to medical marijuana because of the stereotypes and the false propaganda the media presents. As a minority, society looks at what is being displayed on television to determine how they see and judge individuals. In her book, The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America, Charlotte Thomas Iserbyt states that Americans have been brainwashed to accept a worldwide management system. Is that not happening now? When you view veteran commercials you do not see minority veterans; you see Caucasian veterans as if they are the only ones who served honorably. I am not against any veteran, but I do not like how the system continues to divide us in the name of chauvinism and separatism. The military is a melting pot of living beings, and minorities should be treated with the same respect as anyone else who wears or has worn the uniform.
More importantly, the laws are not equal when you consider how many veterans are jailed for cannabis. Most of them are not even aware of their legal status as a veteran or as a natural citizen. Look at what we have now, all of these so-called experts and entrepreneurs getting involved in the industry. Most of them are being lionized while many minorities are behind bars for the same business. Racism is alive and well, even in the cannabis industry.
How would you describe the level of cannabis knowledge among VA administrators and doctors? Are they willing to keep an open mind and learn more?
The level of knowledge is inadequate. Most doctors and administrators fear losing their licenses, so cannabis is unmentionable, to a degree. Under federal law cannabis may not be prescribed, but its therapeutic value can be discussed with patients. Veterans were not consulted at all when the Veterans Health Administration crafted its policy about cannabis use. When I give workshops, I go over the policy with the veterans to give them a better understanding about how they can use it. Until cannabis becomes rescheduled at the federal level, veterans healthcare systems are hamstrung.
How would you describe the level of knowledge about the benefits of medical cannabis among veterans?
Some veterans have elementary knowledge, but the majority do not. There is a generational gap, but collectively we are all veterans and we all have a story to tell. The VA is not conducting any real studies about the effects of cannabis on post-traumatic stress disorder, so there’s a general lack of information. This is where Veterans Health Solutions comes in to fill the void by distributing useful knowledge provided by a veteran who uses medical marijuana.
In your opinion, how does cannabis use benefit veterans? What specific ailments does cannabis address most effectively?
Cannabis medications work so efficiently because of the endocannabinoid system present in all humans. This system consists of a series of CB1 and CB2 receptors that are configured only to accept cannabinoids, especially tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is great for pain management, and it helps boost the immune system to fight many diseases.
Many veterans have mental issues like traumatic brain injury or PTSD, but the majority of veterans’ issues are related to physical ailments. I screen them and find out what concerns they have. Based on my military medical background and increasing knowledge of sativas, hybrids and indicas, I guide them to what might work for them.
If all barriers to cannabis as an alternative to prescription drugs and opiates were eliminated, how would that affect veterans?
If all barriers were eliminated, you would see an increase of very happy and civil veterans. Veterans have a low tolerance for nonsense; that’s how we are trained to be and how we survive. So many of the VA medications given to treat PTSD and other issues like pain, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, and insomnia, when combined, can produce a recipe for tragedy.
One of the major issues is suicidal thinking. A 2012 report from the VA indicated twenty-two veterans die from suicide each day. As we move into 2017, that figure is increasing. You never hear of anyone overdosing on cannabis, but we frequently hear about veterans and others dying from overuse of prescription drugs and opiates. These drugs are narcotics and are highly addictive and can lead to use of more serious drugs like heroin.
There Is A Critical Need Among Veterans To Find Holistic Alternatives To Support Them With Their Medical Issues. – Life D. Griffith
Do you know what percentage of veterans have medical marijuana recommendations?
According to official reports, 1,641 veterans have a medical recommendation. I am not sure about the percentages of all veterans who have acquired medical marijuana recommendations, but I teach them how to get the right one from a certified physician. Keep in mind most veterans are very discreet when it comes to psychological issues, because they’ve been conditioned to believe some medical conditions result from personal weakness. So, many eschew official channels and obtain cannabis via the black market. Because that can be hazardous, my mission to protect, defend, and educate veterans about their rights to gain access in a legal and ethical way is critical.
How many members does VHS currently have, and how do service members find out about the organization?
VHS is very new as an educational resource for the veteran community. Most veterans find out about what I am doing through word of mouth, social media, my website at VeteransHealthSolutions.org, and the various workshops I conduct in and around Los Angeles. I am aligning myself with other veterans groups and like-minded organizations to extend my services, so membership is growing.
Should active-duty service members be allowed to use medical marijuana to deal with the stresses of military life? Could cannabis use possibly even head-off the development of PTSD?
As a nineteen-year U.S. Army veteran who served honorably as a senior non-commissioned officer, I do not think any active member should be allowed to use medical marijuana because of the image it portrays and the message it delivers in terms of sound leadership. Military life is very different from civilian life, and analytical thinking is fundamental when dealing with personnel from the lowest to the highest rank or grade.
However, I also believe active-duty members should be well-informed about cannabis as a part of their transition training, so they comprehend what alternatives they have once they get out. PTSD is a quiet medical issue. The average person cannot see the symptoms even though they are clear to diagnosticians. I think the VA needs to conduct more inquiries, and the truth about the medical value of cannabis needs to be articulated clearly.
How optimistic are you about your work? What do you think the landscape for veterans will look like in five years?
I am very enthusiastic about what I am doing. I get up at 4:30 a.m. every day to start working. I figure if I could provide my fellow veterans with professional service as a VA staff member, I can provide them superior service now as an advocate assisting them in new ways.
I do see a changed landscape for veterans in the next five years, depending on who wins the election. Keep in mind we are in a new world with a new economy, and many things are becoming more automated. We veterans who fought for freedom based on the interest of the U.S.A. must fight for our own interests now by thinking and doing things differently.
How can the cannabis industry and community help, and why is your fight for veterans also their fight?
The cannabis industry can assist by being more diverse; including more minorities in panel discussions, and ensuring decisions are made from a collective point of view. With their political clout and economic power, big corporations and lobbyists are pushing the little guys out of the cannabis marketplace. Consider the reality of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act—Proposition 64 on the California ballot Nov. 8. What proponents and opponents claim AUMA will do bears little relation to how it will affect the industry as a whole. In reality, the act is a farcical attempt to micro-manage taxation.
The Compassionate Care Act, Prop. 215, helps more patients—disabled veterans, the elderly, and many who are gravely ill—by allowing them to take care of themselves. Most individuals coming into the industry now during the “green rush” do not approach the issues with a green heart and a sincere desire to help others, as they claim. Instead, they are in it for the financial gain—period. I heard very little about helping others during the events I attended this year, but I heard a lot about how individuals and corporations want to make money by investing in cannabis stocks and opening dispensaries.
What else would you like people to know about cannabis, veterans, and building a better world?
Cannabis is an herb from the Creator; even Scripture states that. Genesis 1:29: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”
To build a better world, we must re-educate the masses and dedicate ourselves to thinking more freely. It’s important that we never take anything or anyone on face value. Research everything.
To my fellow veterans: Continue to stand and take your place as heroes of significance. Never settle for less than you are worth; many have shed blood and died so others may live. Live and be free to make choices for your own future.
For more information about Veterans Health Solutions, visit VeteransHealthSolutions.org