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CBD and hemp products could end careers for active-duty military in South Carolina

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A hemp plant from Pendarvis Farms in Harleyville on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

As CBD oil and hemp becomes less stigmatized and more popular across South Carolina, men and women in military uniforms stationed in the Palmetto State still aren't allowed to use a majority of the products.

The Department of Defense has taken a hard line against products made from hemp. Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said CBD is forbidden with a few minor exemptions from the branches. All bases in the state abide by the policies from the department.

Hemp has skyrocketed in popularity because of its use in making cannabidiol, often called CBD oil, that is believed to help alleviate symptoms for variety of physical ailments. While it is a strain of the cannabis plant, it is not a narcotic. The crop doesn’t have tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active compound in marijuana that gets the user high.

It is possible for CBD products to contain traces of THC or manufacturers can make sure more THC ends up in a product to give it more potency. This is problematic for routine drug testing in the military, which can detect the psychoactive ingredient and flag it as a narcotic. 

"In order to ensure military readiness and the reliability and integrity of the Drug Testing Program, the knowing ingestion (orally, intravenously, through smoking/vaporization, or through other means) of products containing or products derived from hemp is prohibited," the Air Force manual states. 

Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr., the commanding general for the U.S. Army Training Center at Fort Jackson in Columbia, said there is a zero-tolerance policy for all CBD and hemp usage at the base and recruits are drug-tested before going through basic training. 

The punishment for violating each branch's drug policies varies, but it is often severe. A dishonorable discharge for failing a drug test can lead to losing education and medical benefits from the government. It could also possibly lead to jail time, depending on the type of narcotic. 

The only way to get around the hemp ban is to have a prescription for a Food and Drug Administration-approved medication. 

So far, the FDA has approved only one CBD-derived drug: Epidiolex, an oral solution that treats two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. This is the only exemption to an ingested form of CBD in the military. 

"Bans do not extend to FDA-approved drugs for which the member has a valid prescription," Lawrence said. 

Another minor exemption allows Navy sailors to use hemp in "topical products such as shampoos, conditioners, lotions and soaps," Lawrence said. Previously, the Air Force also allowed topical applications but at the end of July, topical hemp and CBD products were banned.

Cannabis advocates like Joshua Littrell, an Air Force combat veteran, say officials with the Department of Defense are dragging their feet when it comes to adopting CBD products. 

"The general public wants this," Littrell said. "The only people who don't seem to want to adopt it is the top brass at the Pentagon."

Littrell, a Georgia-native who grew up about an hour from Clemson, is the founder and CEO of Veterans for Cannabis. He never used cannabis products before or during his two tours overseas. But after coming back home with a variety of health issues and 13 different prescriptions Littrell wanted to find a better way to treat his ailments. 

"That's the reason why I'm so passionate about it," he said. "It became a movement."

He has since testified in front of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate about making strains of cannabis legal to veterans. He pointed out that health statistics for American service members are jarring. 

In a 2013 report by the Veterans Health Administration, more than 50 percent of former service members receiving care at one of the agency's facilities reported that they were affected by chronic pain. 

It is estimated that about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had post-traumatic stress disorder in their lifetime, according to the Veterans Affairs Administration. About 12 percent of Gulf War veterans and as many as 20 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom veterans have PTSD in a given year.

Littrell said CBD products can alleviate some of the physical side effects that come with serving, and is used as an antidepressant or pain reliever.

"It's completely inequitable and wrong," Littrell said. "In a free country, our active-duty military cannot get CBD products, but they can easily get a 40-ounce of beer to ease their pain. It's a travesty."

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

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