When lawyer Brandon L. Wyatt steps into a courtroom, he’s not only representing military veterans battling for housing, benefits, and the right to use medical cannabis — he’s representing himself as well.
Wyatt was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a city built almost entirely to support Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world by population. He says the locals have a nickname for his hometown: Fayettenam.
“The nickname comes from all of the violence that soldiers commit upon their families and their communities when they return home,” he explains. “I have a great deal of friends who were hurt by their fathers because after coming home from service, their fathers were mentally unstable.”
Wyatt can empathize with the men and women who return home drastically affected by their time at war. At 17, Wyatt joined the army himself, serving in combat as a paratrooper until shortly before his 20th birthday, when he was injured in Iraq.
“I got hurt pretty bad,” Wyatt recalls. “I went mute. I was given intensive therapy and injections to tranquilize me. Though I was given an honorable discharge, I was put out for the convenience of the military.”
When he returned to Fayetteville, Wyatt began to exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Frustrated by the unsatisfactory results of opiate-based pain medication, he experimented with cannabis. He found marijuana did a remarkably effective job of treating his symptoms, and so he resolved to become a lawyer so he could advocate for veterans’ rights, and specifically their right to have safe access to medicinal marijuana.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) current policy of prescribing opiates has led to what Wyatt terms a “suicide epidemic.” He conservatively estimates that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, and that many of those deaths can be directly tied to opiate use. Wyatt himself was struck by tragedy when his cousin in Texas took his own life by overdosing on opiates prescribed by a VA doctor.
“My cousin’s death hurt really, really bad, but what I realized is that using cannabis was saving my life. At the same time, I was about to take the bar exam, and I was being made to feel like a criminal. Once I graduated, I started working with different veterans to figure out ways to rehabilitate them and allow them to get their benefits back.”
One of the groups Wyatt has become involved with is the Weed for Warriors Project. Started in the San Francisco Bay Area, the organization strives to make medical marijuana safe and free for veterans. Currently, veterans risk losing their benefits and other hardships by choosing to medicate with cannabis, and the VA does not allow their physicians to prescribe marijuana as an alternative to opiates and as a treatment option for conditions like PTSD.
“What we found is that a lot veterans are already using cannabis to treat their ailments, but they’re doing it in the closet,” he says. “By talking and working with these veterans, we learned about instances where the government was discriminating against veterans who signed up for medical cannabis cards. They were sending letters to these veterans telling them they were denied benefits at the VA or that their treatment plans had been cancelled because they were using a controlled drug.”
Wyatt wants to see reforms made to the way the VA views marijuana, and swiftly. He believes the immense increase in opiate prescriptions is possibly the result of a shift in policy and treatment plans adopted by the VA in the late 1990s. He does credit the VA for prescribing Marinol, a synthetic version of the cannabinoid THC, but highlights the oxymoronic nature of an institution championing the synthetic version of an organic substance they don’t support.
One piece of promising legislation was the Veterans Equal Access Amendment, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Essentially, the amendment stipulated that VA medical providers would be authorized to offer opinions and give recommendations for medical marijuana to veterans in states where such medicine is legal.
Shockingly, the amendment was removed from the House Conference Report of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017 at the conference committee stage, despite being passed by both the House and the Senate.
In spite of this disheartening development, Wyatt still believes that safe access to cannabis for veterans is an apolitical issue. He says he’s willing to work with anyone open to finding better options for “a group of people who cared enough to try and be heroes for our country.”
Last month, Wyatt welcomed leaders from the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others for a meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss problems related to a lack of consistency in treatment plans for veterans across state lines.
“The number one thing that draws my attention is medical discrimination,” he says. “Veterans fought for the entire country. We didn’t fight for specific states. It’s unfair to treat veterans differently from state to state. This is a federal government created injury. It should be treated on a federal level, and should be applied to all veterans.”
Wyatt also recently hosted a giveaway of nearly 6,000 cannabis edibles to veterans at a VA hospital in D.C.
“There was a great deal of interest,” he says, “and a great deal of families who thanked us for giving them the opportunity to have access to information and access to a plant that provides a viable alternative to the opiate pills and powder being shoved down their family members’ throats.”