Soldiers and Cannabis – A History of Consumption
If you’re actively serving in the military or in a first responder position, there’s no getting around it: any consumption of medical cannabis—even THC-free preparations—is prohibited. However, that wasn’t always the case. Throughout history, there have been unique interactions between soldiers and cannabis that you might not have considered.
In fact, there was a time that the United States military openly embraced cannabinoids as a potential medicine for horses. In The Army Horse in Accident and Disease, the manual indicated that Cannabis indica could be used to treat horses for abdominal pain.
Moreover, before the 1920s, medics of the American Expeditionary Force were taking medical cannabis to Europe to treat troops overseas. According to a book by Brendan I. Koerner, Army medics had a bottle of medical cannabis tincture for every 1,000 soldiers. They used it to help soldiers with headaches, insomnia, and cramps.
Around the same time, cannabis use amongst soldiers in the Panama Canal Zone was apparently on the rise. It became so notable that the Zone’s American governor, Meriwether L. Walker, issued a panel to investigate its use amongst soldiers. The panel recommended that no action be taken against its consumption because there was “no evidence that the marihuana grown here is a habit-forming drug…or that it has any appreciably deleterious influence on the individuals using it”.
Let’s throwback to instances when soldiers and cannabis crossed paths and what the relationship between the two looks like today.
The French Invasion of India
Much of Napoleon’s fame, or notoriety, comes from his victories on the battlefield. They were often miraculous victories that filled the French people of the time with a deep sense of pride. While his exploits on the battlefield may be why his name has stuck throughout history, his actions may also be responsible for the plant’s assimilation into his own army, and eventually into French culture.
In Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years, Ernest L. Abel noted that in 1978, Napoleon set his sights on Egypt. Faced with years of unending escapades into war, many of his soldiers were prominent drinkers. However, upon their move into Egypt, they found a dry state.
Because of prohibition in the Islamic country, Soldiers couldn’t find alcohol anywhere, anyhow. Instead, the soldiers found a drink mixed with cannabis extracts. They also discovered the smoking of hashish.
Napoleon’s Take on Soldiers and Cannabis
It became so widespread throughout his units that in 1800, Napoleon issued a directive that read, “it is forbidden in all of Egypt to use certain Moslem beverages made with hashish or likewise to inhale the smoke from seeds of hashish. Habitual drinkers and smokers of this plant lose their reason and are victims of violent delirium which is the lot of those who give themselves full to excesses of all sorts”.
Among those who ignored the order was his own scientists who reportedly tried it for themselves. After finding it intriguing, they exported some to their colleagues in France for further experimentation.
Once the soldiers returned to France and the people were hearing from the both the scientists and the servicemembers about the effects of hashish, it took hold in the culture. French writers and poets, like Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, made up a part of “Le Club de Haichichins” less than fifty years later. Its contemporary consumption in France is possibly the result of the veterans of Napoleon’s wars bringing it home with them.
The American Invasion of Vietnamese Cannabis
Of the plant compounds that marked the time of the Vietnam War, the least dangerous were those from Cannabis plants. Dioxin, for example, continues to leave its mark on the general population of Ho Chi Minh City, and beyond.
The American military put Cannabis plants to use in the Vietnam War for more than just its compounds, however. They found significant value in hemp rope, for example.
In a short video, there are also reports of some military commanders in Vietnam resolving conflicts between soldiers with cannabis, as opposed to alcohol.
As we’ve learned from Napoleon: a war that involves significant cannabis consumption amongst its warriors results in an influx in its popularity back home. As the veterans of Vietnam returned home, many returned with their newfound appreciation for the medicinal plant and the bond between these soldiers and cannabis grew.
In fact, the properties of medical cannabis were popularizing so rapidly that President Nixon began his War on Drugs in 1971. However, his efforts did little to stop the spread of its popularity. Furthermore, many now accept that his War on Drugs was a humanitarian disaster.
The Vietnam War’s negative effects proliferate to this day and victims of the War on Drugs see little-to-no relief. Yet, the war itself may have helped spur the popularity (and eventual rise) of today’s medical cannabis industry.
What helped the soldiers relax in times of war seems to help heal civilians, as well. Given its usefulness, one might think the military has use for Cannabis and the medicinal properties of cannabinoids like CBD.
But do they?
The Relationship Between Soldiers and Cannabis Today
Unfortunately, the United States military prohibits any and all derivatives of Cannabis, including CBD derived from low-THC varieties of hemp. In August of 2019, the Department Defense reiterated its position that all CBD products are forbidden to troops.
The Coast Guard went a step further and published a notice that banned Coasties from even stepping foot inside of a medical cannabis dispensary. Moreover, policy prevents servicemembers from doing business in the manufacturing or distribution of medical cannabis products.
Likewise, the Army and the Air Force both sent notices to their active-duty members about the incongruency of CBD and service. Even NASA (not a branch of the military), issued a warning to its members that consumption of CBD could lead to their dismissal. This is unsurprising since the military is under the umbrella of the federal government which remains largely anti-Cannabis. However, an earlier directive published by the Department of Veterans Affairs made it clear that veterans will not be denied service or access to VA programs due to legal medical cannabis consumption.
The directive outlines it is okay to discuss CBD and other cannabinoid medicines with VA physicians without fear of repercussion. Additionally, the directive emphasizes that veterans should discuss any medication being taken and that, while the information is recorded in HIPAA compliant files, the physicians will only use the information to better inform their decisions in treatment dosage, schedule, and application.
Unfortunately, even in states with legalized forms of medical cannabis, VA physicians may not:
- Write recommendations or prescriptions for medical cannabis
- Authorize payment for the costs of medical cannabis
- Assist with applications or paperwork for medical cannabis
Where Does That Put Soldiers and Cannabis Today?
Being bound under the scope of the federal government, the VA can go no further than federal law permits. At this time, that means VA physicians can only recommend drugs and treatment methods authorized by the FDA.
For now, veterans are welcome to use CBD products and even medical cannabis with THC in states with legal access. The VA, however, remains restricted by federal law from assisting veterans in this regard.
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