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Medicating in Wartime: The Cannabis Legacy of Vietnam Veterans

  • Vietnam Veterans give first-hand accounts of the role of Cannabis on and off the field
  • Former Sgt. John Adams of the Security Platoon: “That [Cannabis] was the only way to deal with that craziness over there.”
In this Jan. 1, 1966 file photo, a Paratrooper of the 173rd U.S. Airborne brigade crouches with women and children in a muddy canal as intense Viet Cong sniper fire temporarily pins down his unit during the Vietnamese War near Bao trai in Vietnam. (Horst Faas/AP, courtesy of Ken Burns/PBS)

April 30th marks the 43rd anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and the end of the War in Vietnam. About three million Vietnamese, and more than 58,000 Americans, were killed during the war.

Studies have found that about one-third of American soldiers in Vietnam consumed cannabis.

Close to three million American men and women served in Vietnam. And around one-third of those military personnel, according to recent studies, smoked marijuana.

Cannabis grew wild in Vietnam and access to “reefer” was never an issue for U.S. military personnel. “Over there we were getting the premium stuff—no stems and seeds,” said John Adams, a retired computer engineer living in Riverside, California. Adams served two tours in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine in the late 1960s, with the 1st FSR Logistics Group in Da Nang.

“You’d get in a jeep, run down to Four Corners,” he remembered, “and get 20 pre-rolled joints for 10 bucks. It was pretty; I wish I had a picture of it.” It was pretty heady stuff, too: “You’d take two hits and you’d have to sit down.”

Dale Schafer during the Vietnam war era.

Many Soldiers, But Not All

While soldiers might have smoked marijuana while in combat, it was more common for military personnel to enjoy cannabis once they were off the front lines.

‘The Army didn’t really police it until it became a PR issue.’

One 70-year old veteran Leafly spoke with, a Long Island, New York resident who was part of an Army long range reconnaissance patrol unit (LLRP, pronounced “lurp”) from 1967 to 1969, said he saw very little marijuana smoked while on patrol near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam.

“Not in my unit,” said the veteran, who asked that his name not be used—and who we’ll call Alan.

“It was mostly in the rear, off-duty or back where there was no action. It was not really done front line. I’m sure there were [front line cannabis smokers], but I was in a different arena than most. It had to do with being ready and alert and keeping your focus.”

Dale Schafer today: Advocating for veterans in El Dorado County, California.

An Open Secret

It appears that cannabis use was an open secret in Vietnam during the war’s early years.

Cannabis was ‘the only way to deal with the craziness over there.’

“For a while the Army didn’t really police it that strenuously, until at a certain point when it started to appear on the public’s radar screen and became a PR issue,” said Jeremy Kuzmarov, assistant professor of history at Tulsa University and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs.

Media reports of soldiers and marines smoking marijuana while in the field grabbed headlines, as well as the attention of the military brass. That led to a crackdown on cannabis in Vietnam. Kuzmarov also points to rumors and reports at the time about marijuana contributing to rampant drug abuse among soldiers, as well as weakening combat efficiency, a collapse in military discipline and even rumors of cannabis as a factor in war atrocities.

John Adams, Security Section platoon sergeant in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Medicating Before it Was a Term

But many Vietnam veterans will tell you otherwise—that cannabis was actually their way of coping with war’s nightmares.

“When you watch men women and children get blown apart and you have to come back and deal with that, sometimes you have to have some means of closing down,” John Adams told Leafly. “So realistically, where we weren’t on duty we were either drunk or high.”

“I can…

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