Thanks to the Emerald Sciences Conference team— Jules Sinclair, Ken Snoke, Wes Burk, and Cliff Beneventi, and Dr. John Abrams
I am so grateful for this platform. I am humbled to have the opportunity to kick off this important conference focused on the science of cannabis and the technology to facilitate its research. I’m honored to address you, the leaders in the field on this occasion.
I love coming back to my home state of California and seeing how the bravery of activists changed cannabis policy here in 1996, which began a policy evolution across the United States and around the world. For example, it was the bravery of gay activists in California, like Denis Peron, Harvey Milk, and Richard Eastman, teaming up with Jack Herer responding to suffering brought on by the AIDS epidemic that inspired their movement. The loss and suffering of their friends was too much to bear, and they risked their freedom and reputations to come to the rescue of their comrades.
In many ways, my own life has followed the arc of cannabis policy.
I was born in 1970, the same year that Richard Nixon—another Californian—created the “war on drugs.” I was raised in the “Just Say No” generation in a law enforcement household. And in 1996, the same year that I graduated from West Point, CA was the first state to take the brave step forward to legalize medical cannabis.
And then on January 1st, 2018, I was officially retired from the Army, and my home state of CA legalized the adult use of cannabis. I now call Kansas City, MO home, and I’m proud to say that I was part of legalizing medical cannabis there, which passed by a vast majority during the November 2018 election.
As you’ve likely concluded from my bio, I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. I am now just an old soldier. At West Point, I was trained under the banner of DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY and inspired to a lifetime of service to the Nation. Much like many of you, I feel like working in the medical cannabis industry is my calling. I consider this how I continue to serve, today. Given my experiences in the Army and my understanding of the power of the cannabis plant, I believe that I have a voice to lend to this discussion and a duty to pursue safer and more effective methods of treating veterans and military personnel who suffer from wounds both visible and invisible.
As a Veteran now, I find myself part of a population in the midst of a health crisis marked by elevated levels of suicide, mental health concerns, substance abuse issues, and addiction. I cannot purport to speak for all veterans, but today I will attempt to describe the view from my foxhole.
But first, I also want to thank Doug Distaso for the great introduction, and congratulate him for being named the new Executive Director of the Veterans Cannabis Project, where I’m proud to serve as a board member and the director of the Midwest region. Doug is a 1996 USAFA graduate who served our Nation as a special operator for many years. He is now working tirelessly to bring about policy changes every day by waving our flag in Washington D.C., providing leaders with a great reason to say yes to increased research and access to medical cannabis for veterans. The VCP was founded by Nick Etten, a Naval Academy grad, and The VCP is turning out to be incredibly influential instrument in cannabis policy at the federal level. I believe it is because the creation of the VCP and the execution of what we do come from a place of great PURPOSE for us and a sense of DUTY, because we feel like we’re doing what we were trained to do—protect and care for those who have served. And because of our time as leaders in the military, we also care deeply about the families of those who serve; keeping in mind the often serious cascading effects of pain and trauma experienced in veterans’ families and the communities in which they live.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that West Point owns—for the second year in a row—the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. This means that Army beat both the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy this year in football. I bring this up not only to gloat but also to bring us to the football field. Part of our training at the military academies is participation in athletics. This instills in all of us a sense of the interconnectedness between competitive athletics and military action–these are ideas of struggle, tactics, and strategic engagement. And football of course has a long tradition at the academies—the Army-Navy game, first played in 1890, is one of the most traditional, enduring rivalries in college football.
General Douglas MacArthur, himself a superb athlete, while serving as Superintendent of West Point identified so clearly the relationship between competition on the football field and combat on the battlefield. He said, “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”
In no other forum is there a clearer representation of today’s modern gladiators and warriors.
On the second Saturday every of every December, the football field is where gladiators from both Army and Navy engage in competition that will translate one day to the battlefield, where they will serve as warriors. It’s also the field where men engage in competition that is a multi-billion dollar “entertainment” industry. Professional athletes, our modern Gladiators on the football field risk their health, and arguably their lives in the long term, for our entertainment. And warriors on the battlefield do our nation’s bidding, by putting their lives on the line as part of duty to our country. Both of these populations are at high risk for suffering from long-term health issues, including chronic pain, PTSD, TBI, and CTE, just to name a few. These populations are also at extremely high risk of becoming addicted to opioids and other frequently prescribed drugs. These populations should have access to medical cannabis as an option.
I believe that we are in a position to change the lives of veterans, football players, men and women affected by
these debilitating medical conditions. And indeed we have an ethical duty to do so.
So, How does an Army Colonel get involved in cannabis?
In Afghanistan, I served on the Commander’s Initiatives Group, which is an interdisciplinary team comprised of diplomats, military personnel, and civilians tasked with providing strategic advice to the Coalition Commander.
Among many other things, we were asked to develop innovative solutions to transform the Afghan economy using the country’s available natural resources. I proposed the use of hemp as an element of the Afghan economy to provide a replacement to the widespread cultivation of opium. An additional benefit of this plan would have been the cross-pollination of hemp and cannabis, thereby reducing the amount of THC in the hashish crops they grew to sell in prohibition markets for exorbitant profits. My recommendation fell on deaf ears, because, although I served for incredibly intelligent and talented leaders, this was still a bit “out there.”
But it was there, in Afghanistan, where I became so interested in everything revolving around cannabis. I had never found a subject more fascinating on so many levels. Its history in the United States charts a path beginning with the devastating Social Justice implications of our prohibition of this plant rooted in racism, greed, and often illogical, fear-mongering, and uninformed political arguments.
The social justice impacts alone, coupled with the potential health impacts on our society, merit focus and the concentrated efforts of the entire global community. This includes international organizations, federal, state and local governments, as well as academic institutions. Our future must focus on the as-yet untapped transformative possibilities that this plant has to offer.
As states begin to legalize adult use of marijuana, we’re beginning to see positive outcomes in Job Creation, Revenue Generation, and increased Research opportunities. We are building an industry from the underground up. It is amazing to watch, as many of you are already doing, what it looks like when we apply modern scientific tools and techniques to a plant we’ve been unable to study for far too long. So, I am very excited to hear many of your findings over the next two days.
Today, we find ourselves in a position to facilitate meaningful research and then to amplify the medical outcomes of cannabis. By creating opportunities for interdisciplinary, multinational collaborative groups, we can synchronize research agendas. And with the support of powerful partners in the federal arena, including but not limited to the DoD, and in national, influential institutions like the NFL, we can make visible the results of this research.
And I believe that this conference, with the incredible roster of scientists leading sessions on significant topics such as cannabis genomics and chemotyping, genetic sequencing, standards and practices, pharmacological strategies, cultivation, extraction, and processing, and emerging research trends and findings, to name just a few, , are so vital to forward progress and to what I see as our ethical responsibility, our DUTY, to our planet and our fellow human beings.
Before I left the military, I struggled, at first, to see how my skill sets might translate to the industry. But I realize that the skill sets that I am deploying in the cannabis space were the same ones that were developed in me in the military. While serving, I was trained to lead soldiers in combat, and I was trained in the art of diplomacy. In the military we have been told that our only limit was our imagination and that we have to think critically about complex issues and develop creative solutions to apply to them.
There are few issues facing our country that are more complex than that of veteran suicide and our Nation’s opioid crisis. The two combined result in the death of nearly 12,000 veterans annually. Beyond that, opioid overdoses cost the lives of almost 70,000 American civilians last year, resulting for the third year in a row, in a decline in the life expectancy of American citizens.
Now, THAT is a national emergency. Cannabis can help reverse this situation. This is no longer an assumption. This is what we know from experience in 33 states that have legalized cannabis for medical purposes.
Even the FDA holds several patents on cannabinoids as a neuroprotectant, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant. This triad comprises, ironically, the three things that would be most useful to combat Traumatic Brain Injuries, what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA) has called “The Signature Wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.”
My passion project is The Athena Protocol.
I’ve named this project after the Greek goddess, Athena, who is the goddess of military victory, knowledge, and good counsel. And, her helmet is prominently displayed on the crest of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The Athena Protocol is a four-phased, multi-disciplinary strategy designed to mitigate and treat traumatic brain injury (TBI). And, we believe it may have the same application to prevent and treat chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The Protocol seeks to harness the neuroprotective, anti-oxidative, and anti-inflammatory properties of non-impairing cannabinoids administered as a prophylaxis and a treatment through a phased program prior to and following a brain injury, which would include administration on the battlefield immediately following a suspected TBI, at the point of injury.
The development of this Protocol was inspired by the loss of one of my Lieutenants who had served under my command.
Captain Andrew Houghton, from Houston, Texas was an exceptional young officer and a fellow graduate of West Point (Class of 2001). Andy threw his hat in the air on the field at Michigan Stadium just months before the attacks of 9/11 on our Nation that thrust us into what is our country’s longest conflict. I last saw Andy at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where I met his parents. We pinned a purple heart on his chest, and the following day he succumbed to his traumatic brain injury sustained while serving in Iraq. My hope is that The Athena Protocol might be able to prevent or reduce the severity of TBIs, and perhaps increase the survivability of soldiers in combat. It is scientists and researchers like you who fill this room and the technology that we are all working to bring to bear on the cannabis plant that might help move research like this forward.
So, where are we now?
I’d say that we are in The Adaptive Space. This is a concept we train our officers on at the Command and General Staff College in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s based on Michael Arena’s groundbreaking work that leads organizations to become more agile and to embrace disruptive forces as positive accelerators. Cannabis is that disruptive force.
The Adaptive Space exists in between and intersecting the Entrepreneurial and the Operational realms of leadership. In short, the Adaptive Space is the space that exists between the prohibition period, where research was stifled (an understatement) to a place where cannabinoid medicines can be prescribed with predictable outcomes. It is the place where we will soon get to apply the most complex plant that we know of at some of the worlds most complex health issues. In this space–if people collaborate freely with parallel objectives–real growth happens and true organic innovation emerges.
In order to develop a deeper understanding of how cannabinoid medicine might be applied to some of the most complex medical conditions of our time, we need to:
- Reduce barriers to research
- Develop clear protocols for cannabis
- Create an environment to conduct research on the predictability of cannabis’ effects on the prevention and treatment of injury, illness, and disease.
- Conduct research on dosing, which the Emerald Sciences Team is currently working toward.
- Furthermore, we should demand that medical schools train their students on the endocannabinoid system and the most current science on cannabis.
- Finally, I believe that the DoD is uniquely positioned as the ideal organization to lean into medical cannabis research. The veteran community represents the largest patient population in the United States. The DoD has over 1,200 health care facilities nationwide, including 170 VA Medical Centers, and over 1,000 outpatient sites of care. These serve over 9 Million enrolled veterans annually. 75% of that population have made it known that they would welcome cannabis as a treatment option. The two largest VSOs (VFW and AL) have made demands for increased cannabis research part of their national platforms.
- It makes sense that the military would lead this effort
The military has a long history of driving medical advances, including the discovery of penicillin, the development of plastic surgery, and the treatment of amputation. These advances were realized in response to necessity. We’re now in a moment of necessity. And we need the DoD to STEP UP, get past the stigma, and look at medical cannabis as a way to address the veterans health crisis that we’re in today. I’m confident that cannabis would become an effective tool for the military medical community to address veterans health issues, if they were to commit to understanding the full potential this plant possesses. And, I believe that we would reduce healthcare costs for our nation, as a whole.
If we focus science, technology, and minds with clear vision and purpose, we can maximize innovations in this Adaptive Space. And this must happen NOW. In the military, we spend a lot of time learning about revolutions in military affairs. That is to say how small changes or inventions change warfare. These include the advent of the stirrup that made it possible for warfare to be conducted while mounted on a horse. It is the advent of the rail lines to speed military transport. It is the invention of the computer…of the satellite. These all add to revolutions in military affairs.
Today, we are on the precipice of an authentic paradigm shift that will be seen as a true revolution in medical affairs. Even today, medical cannabis is saving people’s lives and improving the health and well-being of their families and communities. It is my goal to ensure that this happens within the veteran community, as well.
We are so lucky to be operating within the cannabis industry today, in whatever role you might be playing. While the rest of the world gets to watch the shifting of a paradigm, we get to actually guide it, shape it, direct it. We get to make it in the form of something that we can be really proud of. We can set the example for other industries to follow.
My final thought
We spend a lot of time discussing this plant, and that is for good reason. For many of us, we consider that this plant has saved our lives or the lives of someone close to us. Most of us are inspired by this plant for the bounty we believe it possesses and because we believe that it can revolutionize the way we treat patients and how it might improve the health and well-being of our species. What will make this all possible are the People. And, that is why we are gathered here, to interact with one another, and to create connections that might help us advance medical science and deepen our understanding of the cannabis plant and how to deploy it. We are here to promote collaboration among Nations, institutions, and people. I’m sure many of you have experienced the deep friendships that develop around the study of this plant…some of it even owed to the mutual communion around the cannabis plant.
One particular individual that I would like to mention was a dear friend and colleague, Steve Baugh. He spoke here last year and was a member of the Harvest 360 Team. Steve passed away suddenly just ten days ago. He was an accomplished chemist and inventor who held several patents. He was a husband and father with a genius mind. But most of all, he was our friend and a valued teammate. His passing is a great loss to the scientific community. We will miss him dearly and offer condolences to his family.
My goal for this address was to inspire this crowd by pointing out the need for greater research of cannabis and perhaps introduce you to the struggles of a the veteran population so desperately in need of safer and more effective treatments for the wounds of war. But, I believe you already know this. I think we are all well aware of the potential for cannabis to serve as a life saving medicine. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.
In the end, I believe what I am trying to do is to inspire our country to significantly reduce the barriers to research of cannabis. I think that access to this medicine and the ability of scientists to research it should be considered a human right, and that it is our DUTY to explore it.
During a recent trip to Washington DC with the VCP, I visited the American Academy of Sciences. I went there to pick up a copy of their recent publication: The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. This report provides a broad set of evidence-based research conclusions on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids and puts forth recommendations to help advance the research field and better inform public health decisions.
As I entered the building, I was immediately struck by Albert Einstein’s words that guard the entrance to the building.
He was quoted as saying:
“The right to search for truth implies also a duty;
One must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”
In this, Einstein is challenging all of us to search for truth with integrity and purpose and to share that truth for the greater good.
I feel that Einstein’s quote was an appropriate way to open our proceedings this week, and I hope to harness or enlist the intellectual power and the scientific capabilities represented in this room to that end.
I cannot wait to search for truth with you and share it with the world.
I implore this group to join me and so many other veterans who are working toward this end to find solutions to address the healthcare crisis we are in today. I invite the Department of Defense and others to join us in helping facilitate research.\
I believe it is our duty to do so.
I believe we have WE HAVE SKIN IN THE GAME!