Cannabis, Women Veterans, and VSOs: An Advocate’s Journey

Cannabis Patient Care, December 2021, Volume 2, Issue 4
Pages: 24-25, 28

As a veteran, RN, and PTSD survivor, Cherissa Jackson has made it her mission to educate veterans about PTSD and cannabis as a treatment option and to create inclusivity for women veterans.

Cherissa Jackson is the Chief Medical Executive of American Veterans (AMVETS), a veteran’s service organization (VSO). She is a registered nurse and a retired Air Force nurse. She served in the military for 23.5 years and 14 days; survived four deployments—three to combat zones, twice to Iraq, once to Afghanistan—and took care of troops through all the branches of the military. When she returned from her last deployment in 2012, a year before she retired, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ever since, she explained that she has “been on a quest to provide resources, educate the community about PTSD, and change the stigma around it as well as provide resources and treatment options for veterans who are suffering from PTSD.”

In fact, sharing her personal story and some of the ways she’s coped with PTSD is how her cannabis journey started. She even wrote a book, At Peace, Not in Pieces, that is featured in many magazines. 

“My overall quest as an advocate is to provide as much information as I can to veterans—whether cannabis is an ideal option or a good fit is not for me to conclude, but it’s important to provide options knowing that veterans are suffering every day,” she said. “The suicide epidemic is horrific as the numbers increase because of COVID. It’s important to let veterans know they can be their own advocate and choose their own treatment.”

AMVETS

To support veterans, Congress chartered six VSOs to be the voice of veterans in the community. AMVETS is one of the largest congressionally chartered VSOs and the most inclusive.

“You don’t have to be a wounded warrior or a disabled or paralyzed veteran—we accept all members through all walks of life in our organization,” Jackson explained. “That’s what separates us from all the other VSOs: We are the most inclusive.”

And in all fairness, veterans need as much inclusivity and support as they can get. Many veterans feel rejected, overlooked, and under-appreciated, not to mention the physical ailments, such as chronic pain, and mental illnesses—PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicide—that accompany military service.

“Veterans really need our support—not just the words ‘thank you for your service’ but ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ That will change how veterans perceive the community’s support because we’re tired of the words. We want our community to be more supportive in action—that’s how veterans will feel supported.”

AMVETS offers its members support and inclusivity by having conversations other VSOs are not willing to have—many of those conversations are around cannabis, women veterans, and the LGBTQ+ community. Jackson explained that part of her support was to conduct focus groups so that she could hear directly from veterans what they wanted her to advocate for on their behalf.

“It’s been a goal of mine as the Chief Medical Executive to bring those conversations to the forefront, and the best way to do that is to be bold about it, and have the conversations that no one wants to have,” Jackson said. “I think that’s the reason why a lot of members love and choose AMVETS as their VSO.”

The Healthcare, Evaluation, Advocacy and Legislation (HEAL) Program at AMVETS was created in 2018 to help veterans with questions or issues around those four pillars. HEAL has a team of experienced clinical experts that intervene directly on behalf of service members to help them access health care, including mental health and specialized services. For example, if they can’t get an appointment at the VA, they call HEAL who advocates for them and makes sure VA case managers get veterans the care and appointments they need.

Women Veterans and ROSE

And while HEAL works on behalf of veterans, Jan Brown, AMVETS’s first female national commander, has made female veterans her priority, as has Jackson.

“Being the only female veteran in a VSO in a chief medical position, it is important for me not to forget about women veterans because we are often overlooked, and our issues are lumped in with the same issues men have,” Jackson said.

This passion for women veterans is how the Respect Our Sheroes Experiences (ROSE) dinner was created.

“I got enough funds to pay for Busboys and Poets, a restaurant local in D.C., and we blocked off half of the restaurant to host 100 female veterans,” Jackson said. “When they walked in there were roses everywhere, and they felt like they were special—like I took the time to pay attention to the details and make it really special.”

The women were treated to a free dinner with a live band; the tables were decorated with pink and blue roses, gifts from Swarovski and other jewelry makers, and candles; and there was a panel discussion with key female veterans that are advocates in the veteran community.

The five key panelists talked about how it feels to have PTSD in a room with men, resources available for female veterans, changes they want to see at the VA, and more. At the end of the night, the women veterans said the best part about the night was, “being around other female veterans . . . it wasn’t about rank; it was the fact that they were among other women that served, that made them feel really special.”

The dinner was an overwhelming success and Jackson hopes to continue it in the future.

The Veterans Alternative Healthcare Summit

To continue the cannabis conversation and bring it to the big stage, in 2021, Jackson proposed the idea of the Veterans Alternative Healthcare Summit. “I hired a well-known cannabis advocate and consultant to assist me because he knew the network and could get the speakers I wanted,” she explained. “There were 14 panel speakers, and Montel Williams was our keynote speaker—he is a veteran and a big-time cannabis advocate. We had NFL players; researcher Dr. Sue Sisley; Dr. Rachel Knox, an endocannabinologist and cannabinoid medicine specialist; and Wanda James and Etienne Fontan—recipients of the Dennis Peron Award as veteran entrepreneurs in the cannabis space. We also had fireside chats that offered an international perspective with speakers from Israel, Mexico, and Canada. In total we had 22.5K engagements in one day of the summit.”

After the summit, so many veterans reached out to her saying, “Oh my God! Someone is finally bold enough to start talking about this and is not afraid to be the face and voice of it.” Veterans told her they came off their opioids because of cannabis or are no longer addicted to narcotics because of cannabis. “These comments just gave me fuel to know that I’m in the right space, doing the right thing, knowing that we can impact and change lives by talking about this plant,” she said.

The plan is to host a live summit in Hawaii in 2022 to continue the conversations that started at the 2021 Veterans Alternative Healthcare Summit . . . and this is why Jackson created Canna Chat: to continue those discussions. Canna Chat is a 30-minute Facebook Live pre-recorded discussion with cannabis experts.

“We had our first Canna Chat with Dr. Paloma Lehfeldt from Vireo Dispensary one month after the summit because I didn’t want to wait until next year to have this conversation,” Jackson said. “We talked about cannabis, how she got into the industry, and the importance of veterans’ engagement.

“Our goal is to do a Canna Chat once a month. Our next speaker is Dr. Stephen Dahmer, also from Vireo, which we plan to record live from Vireo in Fredrick, Maryland. We want these chats to be informative,” Jackson continued. “We’re not here to convince anybody that this is the right option for them, but when you’re better informed, you can make better decisions for what’s best for you and be your own advocate.”

But there is still a stigma that surrounds cannabis. “It’s like the stigma that existed with PTSD when I retired from the military. People need more information; people can change their perspective by changing how they talk about PTSD,” Jackson said. “PTSD is not a disease of weakness; it’s not a disease where folks can’t be a Chief Medical Executive. You can still be your best self even with PTSD. So, I am using the same approach with cannabis. When someone hears about cannabis, I present it positively. I don’t use words that have a negative stigma such as weed or Mary Jane. We need to call it what it really is: it’s a plant, a medicine, it’s cannabis. And that changes the perspective that most people have, which is deeply rooted in the war against drugs, the war on drugs, the Hippie movement, the Vietnam War era.

“This is a new generation, and I and others are talking about it in a positive way that will change that stigma,” she said. “I hear folks say people just want to get high, and it’s not until I really explain to them how it’s efficacious, even in the minimal research we have, anecdotally we know that it is helpful—it saves lives and treats certain disease processes. So, speaking from this perspective and educating people on the science is what’s going to change the stigma.”

So, what’s next? First, Jackson belives reclassifying cannabis so it’s no longer a schedule I drug will open the door to more cannabis research, and, ultimately, make a relationship between the VA and cannabis possible. Next, increase the number of research projects and encourage veterans to participate.

“We can have scientific data that says cannabis is efficacious due to research project X or Z, which is why it’s important that we are on as many research projects as possible,” Jackson said. AMVETS serves as a recruiter for research projects. “As an organization, we have a huge membership—over 250,000 members. A lot of researchers don’t have the access to tap into the veteran’s space. So, if a VSO stands behind something and veterans hear it, they’re more apt to enroll in a research study than if a perfect stranger asks.”

Jackson is also a student at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy’s Medical Cannabis Science Program. She is in her first semester in the master’s program and will graduate in 2023.

“I do things very intentionally, and I feel like if I’m going to be the spokesperson, the person that veterans call and ask questions, I need to be at my highest level of education,” she explained.

Jackson’s passions for women veterans, veterans’ access to and knowledge of cannabis, and the regulations surrounding it are continuing to drive her focus, her efforts, and her voice in the community.

“I’m in this core group of scholars who are going to be the new hope for cannabis and cannabis reform; it’s so exciting,” Jackson said. “And I’m proud to be part of it. It’s going to allow me to be at the table. Oftentimes, we as women veterans aren’t asked to be at the table, but with the credentials that I’m hoping to get, the expertise and knowledge I bring to the discussion, I’m hoping that people see me as a key stakeholder at the table.”