Third time was the charm for Congress to pass legislation to let Veterans Administration doctors discuss medical marijuana with patients in states where it's legal (like this one!). From a 195-222 failed House vote in 2014 to a narrower 210-213 loss in 2015, this month the House shifted to a 233-189 approval — reflecting the transformation in public opinion over those years.
Among the "no" votes that failed to stop the action, co-authored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, was Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. Lamborn, who represents this veteran-laden district and sits on the House Veteran Affairs Committee, has long decried the shortcomings of what he terms "Obama's VA department." Many local vets are as familiar with those shortcomings — the bureaucratic bottlenecking of much-needed care — as they are with elected leaders' failure to effect meaningful reform. And that frustration has fueled the fight for expanded access to medical marijuana to treat the wounds of war, as detailed in the Indy's April 20 cover story "Aim to Heal."
So why did Rep. Lamborn vote against a policy shift so many ailing vets have begged for? In an email from his spokesman, the congressman put it like this:
"The unproven and untested nature of medical marijuana leaves a lot of unanswered questions about the impact it would have on veterans. The fact is, most major medical associations oppose marijuana use and legalization, and certain studies, including one from Yale Medical School last year, show that marijuana actually aggravates PTSD, rather than alleviating it. Allowing the VA to recommend untested, non-FDA-approved drugs that are illegal under federal law could actually make veterans worse, not better."
That spokesman, Jarred Rego, who tried but failed to make it onto the ballot in the upcoming El Paso County District 3 commissioner race, declined to answer follow-up questions.
Those looking to prevent Rego's boss from winning a sixth term see this recent vote as part of an ongoing and concerning pattern.
"[Lamborn] is out of touch, not only with voters but with reality," says Donald Martinez, one of two Democrats vying for the chance to take on the incumbent in this heavily Republican district come November. Since 2012, when he came home after his Humvee rolled over in Iraq, Martinez has had trouble both getting care through the VA and reaching his congressman to air those grievances. Switching from 24 pills a day to indica strains of marijuana helped with the paranoia and insomnia, Martinez says, adding that other vets he mentors through the Veterans Trauma Court in the 4th Judicial District have found cannabis to be integral to keeping it together back in civilian life.
"I raised my right hand and did things for our country most people haven't," Martinez told the Indy. "So I'm going to take charge of my own health care. ... All [Lamborn] does is point fingers at Obama. And it's like, 'Dude, you sit on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. What have you been doing?'"
Martinez's primary opponent, Misty Plowright, is also a red card holder. She occasionally uses cannabis to treat a lingering leg injury from her time in the Army and trauma from a mental health episode three years ago. Though she never saw combat (at that point Plowright, who's transgender, was identifying as a man), she did emphasize that PTSD is not exclusive to wartime trauma and, more importantly, that "government has no business telling doctors what they can or cannot talk to their patients about when it comes to potential treatments."
Plowright, a tech contractor for an out-of-state company, fancies herself a "Berniecrat" and reckons that she shares enough libertarian leanings to get in with voters in the local House district, which Republicans have always owned.
And opposition to this vote doesn't just come from Democrats — it also comes from within Lamborn's own party where a former intern of his, 32-year-old Calandra Vargas, is also seeking the GOP nomination. Vargas says she doesn't smoke weed herself, but respects individuals' liberty to make their own choices.
"If it's helping people, it's helping people. We need to pay attention and stop stigmatizing," she told the Indy. And though Vargas believes Colorado's current regulatory scheme is too permissive and supports addressing "secondary consequences" of legalization, she recognizes her personal beliefs may not always line up with how voters feel.
"This isn't about me," says Vargas. "But we need elected representatives who are comfortable with the times we live in."
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