I am a military veteran, and cannabis saved my life.

I served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2008 to 2015 before being honorably discharged.

During my time in service I suffered multiple injuries ranging from overuse injuries to my knees, hips, back and blast injuries to my spine, lungs and brain.

Scot Knutson

When I returned home, I was given Oxycodone for the pain and developed an opioid addiction until I was finally hospitalized in 2017 after an overdose.

Even after detoxing and going through both in-patient and out-patient treatment programs, statistics weren’t on my side. Relapse rates for substance abuse disorders are estimated to be between 40 and 60%.

But unlike far too many people suffering from opioid addiction, I had an advantage: living in Colorado, which has a robust legal cannabis program. 

I was also lucky on a personal level, as my brother Erik is the CEO and Co-founder of the cannabis company Keef Brands, which specializes in beverages infused with THC and CBD.

Because I have pulmonary edema caused by trauma to the lungs from blast exposure while I was in the service, I choose not to smoke cannabis flower and instead use 100% plant-derived vape pens.

Beverages have also been a welcomed alternative for my treatment with a fast activation time and precise dosing; they are a great alternative. I truly credit both THC and CBD products for helping me to remain off narcotics after detoxing and for my current pain management.

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My case is one of many success stories illustrating why access to medical cannabis for military veterans should be destigmatized and expanded, and why our government should fund medical cannabis research to produce more definitive conclusions on its likely benefits.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not share the same sentiment and recently opposed expanded access and medical research.

Yet a new survey from the American Legion found that among veterans, 92% support research into medical cannabis and 83% support legalizing medical cannabis, which are even higher rates than the general population.

More veterans are becoming disillusioned with opioid prescriptions and recent highly publicized lawsuits have shown that pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable for hundreds and thousands of overdose deaths.

So, many veterans are turning to cannabis as an alternative treatment for everything from PTSD to chronic pain to cancer – diseases that afflict veterans at disproportionately higher rates. Medical cannabis has a long history of helping treat these diseases, and it can be a safer approach to treatment.

While research hasn’t yet proved definitively that medical cannabis can replace opioids or reduce opioid dependence, there have been numerous studies that found a correlation between a decline in deaths from opioid painkillers and the rise of increased access to medical cannabis. And I can speak from firsthand experience.

Cannabis needs to come out of the shadows and be talked about so there can be education imparted from the VA to patients about how to properly use it. For instance, for THC products, new patients should start low and slow to find the dosing that is both helpful and tolerable.

And it should be communicated that they don’t have to smoke joints – medical cannabis can be everything from beverages to edibles to topicals and more.

The options are endless and there’s something for everyone based on their needs. We also need to advocate for the passage of bills such as the Veterans Equal Access Act and VA Medical Research Act.

There continues to be hopeful progress: my home state of Colorado recently became the third state after New York and Illinois to allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition for which they would prescribe an opioid.

Now post-operative patients or those with acute pain from an injury can potentially use medical marijuana instead of opioids.

But there are additional issues that need to be addressed with regards to veterans and cannabis that go beyond access. For instance, for veterans who use cannabis for treatment in one of the 34 states with a medical program, federal jobs are still off limits.

And folks are forced to pay out of pocket for their prescriptions and required doctor visits. Adding on to the difficult process, these payments must also be made in cash due to the banking limitations faced by the licensed cannabis industry.

As military veterans, we put our blood, sweat and tears into serving this country. In light of Veteran’s Day coming up in November, it’s important for the VA and our lawmakers to address our post-service physical and mental health needs and take our support for medical cannabis to heart.

I’d also like to encourage my fellow veterans to continue to make our voices heard so people can learn from our positive cannabis experiences. We must simultaneously work together on the grassroots level until change is here.

Scot Knutson is the Vice President of New Business Development for Keef Brands. Prior to joining Keef Brands, Scot served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician in Iraq and Afghanistan before being honorably discharged.

Scot Knutson

Special to The Colorado Sun