Onward Cannabis Soldiers: Texas Vets Take the Lead in Lobbying for Medical Marijuana

TUESDAY, JANUARY 10, 2017 AT 4 A.M.

Navy veteran Kate Cochran-Morgan starts her day in her usual way, with a little lawbreaking and a cup of coffee. Morning, she says, is the best time to smoke marijuana.

It’s just a small amount of a medical-grade cannabis of the sort available now or soon in Colorado and 27 other states, but it’s enough to control the pain in her hip and to alleviate depression and anxiety she suffered after leaving the service. It could also net her jail time and a $500 fine in Texas if a police officer ever caught her lighting up.

Cochran-Morgan isn’t happy about that last part, but she’s not hiding her marijuana use either.

“People always ask me if I’m afraid of ‘The Man,’ and I’m like, ‘Who’s this man? Are you going to introduce me to The Man, because I would love to meet this man,’” Cochran-Morgan says. “What I found is that it’s not The Man. It’s fear. It’s just propaganda. And once you get through that fear and start educating people, The Man ceases to exist. That’s all I want to do. I want to help educate people [in the Texas Legislature and beyond]. I want to give them tools to make educated choices, not opinion.”

A successful real estate agent with a home on the outskirts of Dallas, she’s not afraid to discuss her cannabis use because she’s no longer alone. More than 1,600 Texas veterans have stepped out of the shadows to talk about their marijuana use with legislators, the media and anyone else who’ll listen to their harrowing tales of painkiller addiction and suicide. They’re the vanguard of the medical marijuana lobbying effort that’s making battle plans to bring their cause to Texas lawmakers this legislative session. They say they’re tired of being considered criminals when they have no choice but to use marijuana for service-related injuries because the alternatives — painkillers and psychotropic drugs — are killing too many of them.

They’ve come together as part of Operation Trapped, a veteran lobbying movement with connections to two other marijuana lobbying groups, Texas NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project. They’re supporting passage of state Sen. Jose Menendez’s SB 269, which seeks to expand the Texas Compassionate Use Act and allow any Texas resident with a doctor’s recommendation access to medical marijuana.

Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, tried to pass a similar bill in the 2015 legislative session, but it never made it out of the Senate’s Health & Human Services Committee. Instead legislators passed the Texas Compassionate Use Act. It allows patients with a rare form of epilepsy access to a cannabis oil stripped mostly of the chemical compound THC, which gets users high. The act leaves out more than 1.7 million Texans who could benefit from medical marijuana. Menendez wants to increase the number of medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana and allow patients access to the whole plant, not just low-THC oil. (That’s an important point for medical marijuana advocates, who contend that marijuana contains several compounds that are beneficial in treating a variety of ailments.)

“I filed this bill because doctors, not politicians, should determine the best treatment for severely ill Texans,” Menendez said at the Dec. 6 press conference where he first introduced the bill. “This is a legitimate medicine that can help a variety of sick people from a grandmother suffering from cancer to a veteran coping with PTSD.”

It won’t be cancerous grandmothers stalking the halls of the Texas Capitol session, though, trying to persuade lawmakers to step aboard the medical marijuana bandwagon. For that, leave the heavy lifting to the vets. They’re ready.

Kate Cochran-Morgan holds the painting that inspired Operation Trapped.

Kate Cochran-Morgan holds the painting that inspired Operation Trapped.
John Anderson

Cochran-Morgan says she smokes marijuana to combat service-related anger issues, anxiety, depression and feelings of detachment. She also uses it to manage the chronic pain from hip dysplasia, a congenital deformation of her hip that has worsened since she got out of the Navy in 2010.

The blonde, green-eyed Carrollton native didn’t become a pot smoker until after she got out of the Navy. She joined in 2004, enlisting to help pay for college. As a Navy corpsman, she spent a year in the Middle East, working with convoys, troops on the base and any type of victim of war, sickness or starvation. Then her hip dysplasia began to worsen, causing muscle spasms that led to the end of her six-year military career.

After her service ended, she found herself visiting VA hospitals on a regular basis, receiving hydrocodone for pain and higher doses of muscle relaxers. A former health insurance worker, she says she began to experience social anxiety whenever she approached a client’s home, and struggled with anger. More medications followed, some of which she says only made her problems worse.

She says she felt as if she were trapped in a pill bottle, and her newfound alcohol abuse wasn’t helping. She began lashing out at loved ones, including her husband, whom she met on a dating website in 2013. She struggled to get out of bed because the depression and the medications’ side effects don’t mix well.
“I was on so much medication that I was like, ‘There has to be a better way,’” she says.

Smoking cannabis, she says, allowed her to quit the pills and manage her chronic pain. It relieved her stress and became a cure-all drug that, she says, led her out of the pill bottle and gave her her life back. Her interest in cannabis’ benefits put her into contact with the Marijuana Policy Project, which led her to retired Army Maj. David Bass and the Operation Trapped mission.

In 2015, Bass started a project that asked veterans to write their name (unless they wished to remain anonymous), their branch and dates of service, combat operations and disability on a slip of paper and place it inside an empty pill bottle and bring it to the monthly Texas NORML meeting in their area. They could also mail it to an Austin address listed on Operation Trapped’s website.

Alongside the slip of paper would go a toy plastic soldier.

He planned to display the pill bottles the following year on Veterans Day, then again in early February 2017 at a medical marijuana educational exhibit at the state Capitol when legislators will discuss Sen. Menendez’s SB 269.

The image of a toy soldier trapped in a pill bottle resonated with Cochran-Morgan and thousands of Texas veterans who signed Bass’ petition urging legislators to expand the Texas Compassionate Use Act.

Cochran-Morgan spoke at the 2015 Veterans Day press conference in front of the state capitol when Bass announced Operation Trapped’s mission, and she spoke at Menendez’s Dec. 6 press conference. She wasn’t alone. Along with the mother of a child with autism and epilepsy, Cochran-Morgan also stood alongside Amanda Berard, a veteran and pediatric nurse from San Antonio, who spoke of how expanding the medical marijuana policy could also help “Texas tiniest patients,” some of whom Berard says have received medications with side effects four or five pages long.

“A lot of people are looking for a little bit more control [when they choose to use marijuana],” Berard says. “Pharmaceutical takes away a lot of control.”

Read more here: http://www.dallasobserver.com/news/onward-cannabis-soldiers-texas-vets-take-the-lead-in-lobbying-for-medical-marijuana-9065011