Pot & Vets: America’s Shame

Photo by Mike Whiter

Our first president probably wasn’t aware of the many medicinal properties of cannabis. He probably never smoked the stuff either. Nonetheless, George Washington was an enthusiastic hemp farmer. But if he’d known how important cannabis would be to the well-being of future military veterans—and how the US government would one day outlaw the plant entirely—the Bill of Rights might very well have included a few clauses about the right to grow, as well as the right to share.

Many of America’s early settlers brought cannabis extracts and tinctures with them from the Old World. Mainstream medicine recognized and began marketing cannabis after it was added to the US Pharmacopeia in 1850. It would come to be known as a medicine for veterans after the Civil War. In fact, an early cannabis-remedy advertisement quoted the former commanders of the Union and Confederate armies, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, endorsing Hasheesh Candy, a product made available through an importer on Beekman Street in New York City.

According to the ad, Grant stated that cannabis was “of great value for the wounded and feeble” as well as being “harmless.” Lee said: “I wish it was in my power to place a dollar box of the Hasheesh Candy in the pocket of every Confederate soldier; because I am convinced that it speedily relieves debility, fatigue and suffering.”

They fought for their country—but if they used cannabis to treat their physical or psychological wounds, their country turned its back on them. Slowly, though, the battle for cannabis is being won on the home front. (Photo by Mike Whiter)
They fought for their country—but if they used cannabis to treat their physical or psychological wounds, their country turned its back on them. Slowly, though, the battle for cannabis is being won on the home front. (Photo by Mike Whiter)

Ironically, history books often identify morphine addiction as the “soldiers’ disease” that afflicted veterans of the Civil War, and the first national drug-prohibition laws were passed as a result. Could it be that the medical system set up for veterans in the 1800s was leaning too heavily on opiates and not relying enough on cannabis—just as it is today?

There is now ample evidence that the wide-scale application of cannabis therapeutics can dramatically lower both suicide and overdose deaths. One of the most consistent trends since California voters passed Proposition 215, the state’s historic medical marijuana law, has been cannabis use replacing prescription pharmaceuticals. This has led to fewer overdose deaths and lessened the dangerous side effects of these pills.

The US military studied cannabis use among soldiers in the Panama Canal Zone from 1916 to 1929 and concluded: “No mental or physical deterioration effects of smoking marihuana could be demonstrated. But with this statement should be considered the fact that the soldiers observed were all young men who had smoked marihuana for an average of less than two years.” The study also found that there were fewer problems from cannabis use than from alcohol.

In 1918, World War I veterans returned home and found pharmacy shelves well stocked with cannabis products. But by the end of World War II, cannabis medicine had disappeared: The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 outlawed the plant. Unless their doctors had attended medical school before the war, this new generation of veterans never learned of cannabis as a medicine.

The Outlawed Plant Returns

The Northern California pot scene owes a lot to veterans. Following the Vietnam War, many flocked to rugged NorCal in a search for cheap land and solitude—and to escape authority.

Part of the Vietnam experience was exposure to phenomenal strains of cannabis. Many vets returned to the States with the seeds of the cannabis future stuffed inside their duffel bags.

One of the most iconic images from the Vietnam era is a photo of soldiers toking up through a shotgun barrel. It became a powerful statement for peace, and, not surprisingly, the cannabis leaf was often drafted into service as a protest symbol against the war. But this came with a high price: Cannabis use was somehow tied to the US failure in Vietnam, and marijuana became the target of a devastating backlash from conservative America.

This photo of a G.I. toking up on his shotgun is one of the iconic images from the Vietnam War. (Photo by Jim Wells/AP)
This photo of a G.I. toking up on his shotgun is one of the iconic images from the Vietnam War. (Photo by Jim Wells/AP)

Even so, the rise of the modern hemp and medical marijuana movements shares an important connection with veterans. Jack Herer, known as the “Hemperor” for his tireless promotion of the cannabis plant, was an Army vet. Dennis Peron, the driving force behind Prop. 215, served in the Air Force. However, it was the passage of the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical marijuana policy in 2010—updated in 2011—that really opened the door for pro-cannabis veterans’ groups. In the past five years, dozens of cannabis-oriented service organizations run by and for veterans have emerged on the national scene.

The VA’s medical marijuana policy (VHA Directive 2011-004) expired in January 2016. But the clinical practices it set forth officially remain in force until the directive is rescinded or replaced. The policy, which has three parts, decrees that medical marijuana should be treated like any other medicine and that doctors should look for any contraindications on a case-by-case basis under a treatment plan based on the patient’s particular needs.

The second part of the policy reiterates the DEA warnings issued throughout the VA system by the VA’s general counsel. Many VA doctors are still convinced that they’re subject to prosecution merely for writing a cannabis recommendation or filling out forms for patients to qualify for treatment under state medical marijuana laws. That threat was lifted outside the VA long ago.

Finally, VA policy reiterates that cannabis possession is still a federal crime and that VA property is federal. Thus veterans, like anyone else, are still subject to arrest for possession on the grounds of VA facilities.

Time for a Change

Federal employees lack free speech, and the VA lacks the courage to challenge the DEA. The Walters v. Conant decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified to doctors across the country that it was safe to write recommendations—though not prescriptions—for cannabis. The Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to that decision. But the law never compelled the DEA to clarify that the agency wouldn’t prosecute doctors for writing recommendations.

Representative Sam Farr (D-CA), who will retire from Congress in early 2017, was the first lawmaker to author a federal bill to create free-speech rights for VA doctors, allowing them to recommend cannabis if they choose. More recently, this effort was taken up by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who introduced the Veterans Equal Access Amendment. It was duplicated in the Senate as part of a larger bill called the CARERS Act. As a result, the Senate has had a meaningful dialogue with the DEA and the Department of Veterans Affairs on this issue, and it’s now true that, at some level, the VA knows that its doctors can safely recommend cannabis to their patients in medical marijuana states.

How this will manifest itself in future policy is still unclear. Veterans’ advocates have been waiting nearly a year for word on the VA’s much-anticipated updated policy on cannabis. It’s important to note that the Veterans Equal Access Amendment was passed by both houses of Congress as part of the budget process in 2016—but the language was stripped from the final version of the bill by a conference committee, just before President Obama signed it into law.

Since 2012, veterans have also led an effort to add PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, which has resulted in more than a dozen updated state laws. This effort was based in part on the experience of nurse practitioner Bryan Krumm and others in New Mexico, the first state to allow PTSD as a qualifying condition, as well as on a mountain of scientific research conducted in other countries. In Arizona, attorney Ken Sobel and nurse Heather Manus of the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association presented this research to a judge, who ruled that a “preponderance of evidence support[s] cannabis as a treatment for PTSD.”

Although countries like Israel, Canada and Croatia have acted upon this evidence and created programs that deliver cannabis to veterans as part of their benefits, the United States refuses to acknowledge this research. Instead, federal law still officially maintains that cannabis has no medical value whatsoever.

As a result, when the VA enabled veterans who live in medical marijuana states to use cannabis, it created a conflict. The US Constitution requires that all citizens must be treated the same under the law. “Treatment by geography” is inherently unconstitutional: All vets should feel secure that they will not lose compensation or pension benefits merely for using cannabis—legal or not. Financial benefits are suspended only in the case of felony incarceration, but they can be reinstated upon release. However, there are still far too many veterans living in states where access to medical cannabis is limited or nonexistent.

The fact that so many of our veterans are not able to use a proven therapy—one that thousands of Canadian veterans currently benefit from—is a disgrace. As long as the VA fails to embrace this valuable medicine nationwide, while continuing to dispense enormous amounts of pharmaceuticals—a number of which have been tied to high rates of addiction, suicide and overdose deaths—there’s plenty of reason for America to be profoundly ashamed!

Many Vets are tossing out opioid medication in favor of pot. (Photo by Mike Whiter)
Many Vets are tossing out opioid medication in favor of pot. (Photo by Mike Whiter)

No Pot Casualties

In more than six years of clinical experience with medical cannabis, the Veterans Health Administration has never identified a problem with its use as a therapeutic agent—and the VHA is the largest medical system in the world. We should assume that an agency created to provide the best possible medical care to all US veterans would tell us if it had identified real or potential harm from cannabis used medicinally. The VHA hasn’t done so because, when it comes to harm, there’s nothing to report.

We hope two things are true: first, that the VHA, recognizing a historic medical opportunity, is collecting and analyzing the results from tens of thousands of cannabis patients; and second, that doctors and nurses working in the system are doing likewise by charting cannabis use and the various maladies it’s used to control.

Since July 2010, when the Veterans Health Administration published a directive defining cannabis as a medicine, the option opened for tens of thousands of vets to use it medicinally and become involved with the VHA’s treatment protocols in all of the “legal” cannabis states and territories. The VHA’s leadership has backed veterans as much as it’s able and should be recognized for its compassionate, science-driven policy of using cannabis medicinally wherever possible.

The 2016 election saw eight more states legalize medical or recreational use. I believe the veteran population was a large piece of each state’s decision. —Al Byrne, lieutenant commander, US Navy (ret.); co-founder, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access

Healing in the Ranks

Therese Carrozzino has kept quiet about dumping her pills—until now. (Photo by Mike Whiter)
Therese Carrozzino has kept quiet about dumping her pills—until now. (Photo by Mike Whiter)

I was stationed in Baumholder, Germany, and El Paso, Texas, and medically discharged from the Army in November 2013 to return home to South Jersey. After sustaining physical injuries, I was put on narcotics and muscle relaxers for anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc. The Army and VA tried every antidepressant, mood stabilizer and anxiety medication known to man on me. But marijuana saved my life. I was able to put down the narcotics and continue to live. I wasn’t a walking zombie anymore. Marijuana is the best medicine out there, and it needs to be recognized as such. —Therese Carrozzino, specialist E-4, US Army

When you witness the worst the world has to offer, it’s very hard to find the beauty in anything. Being a prescription zombie is like being trapped in a pitch-black room. As soon as I smoked my first joint, it was as if someone flipped the light switch on: I saw everything from a whole new perspective. Life was beautiful again. I was able to heal. I was able to process my trauma. I was able to smile. As we discover how cannabis treats our psychological wounds, we also begin to rebuild that camaraderie with other veterans that we so desperately miss from our military service. Along with fellow veteran Barry Richardson, we’ve made it our mission to grow and provide quality medicine to suffering veterans. We hope to single out specific strains that help veterans better cope with the symptoms of PTSD. —Dakota Blue Serna, lance corporal, US Marine Corps

Mike Whiter
Mike Whiter

Five years ago, I was sitting on the couch in my South Philadelphia living room taking handfuls of pills and drooling on myself. Nodding in and out of consciousness, I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I honestly hoped on most days that I would fall asleep and not wake up. Today, I’m a successful photographer and outspoken advocate for veterans to have safe access to medical cannabis, and I attribute much of my own recovery to it. PTSD held me down, and the pills prescribed by the VA put even more of a weight on me, pushing me further down. Cannabis helped me get off of the pills and regain a sense of self, something that I’d lost after knowing nothing but being a Marine for nearly 11 years of my life. Cannabis, in conjunction with weekly therapy sessions, helped me get to know myself as Mike again. PTSD and pharmaceutical treatments would have killed me. Cannabis saved my life. —Mike Whiter, staff sergeant, US Marine Corps

When I returned home from Iraq in 2005, I was faced with difficulties I never would have imagined. I didn’t think I was capable of succumbing to some of the demons I battled either. At this phase of my life, I feel blessed to be alive, free of institutionalization or incarceration—and freed from the bondage of opiate addiction. The outcomes would have been drastically different had it not been for the unconditional love from my family and peers, and finding access to the cannabis plant. I was able to overcome years of PTSD-driven misery, fueled by drug abuse and ineffective pharmaceuticals. Cannabis was an exit drug for me, providing a better quality of life with far less harmful side effects. I like the fact that I can treat a multitude of issues or symptoms with cannabis simultaneously through various delivery methods. More than 22 veterans, plus one active-duty service member, are killing themselves each day. The growing opiate epidemic in our population is heartbreaking. We need to give cannabis a chance to contend in modern medicine. It will save a great deal of lives. —Sean Judge, specialist, US Army

I was deployed to Iraq from 2004–5, and performed a wide variety of missions including support, escort, quick reaction, route reconnaissance/clearance and civil-affairs operations. Diagnosed with severe PTSD and other service-connected issues in 2006, I went through multiple treatment/therapy programs, evaluations and in-patient stays at the Veterans Affairs hospital. For three years, I ran the gauntlet of “traditional” treatment methods, including a steady prescription of pharmaceutical narcotics. In 2009, I decided to wean myself off of the prescription cocktail provided by the VA and rely solely on cannabis—a decision I credit with helping me move on with life. As an advocate for cannabis-law and public-health reform, I’m determined to continue speaking out for those who needlessly suffer. I am wholeheartedly committed to ending cannabis prohibition so Americans can access cannabis without fear. —Ricardo Pereyda, specialist, US Army Military Police

I served 14 months on the Great Lakes as a seaman. Then I went to school to become an electrician’s mate. I was assigned to Station Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California. While stationed there, I started having episodes of depression. Naval doctors started me on a cocktail of pills for headaches, depression and anxiety. Before I was discharged, I had pill addictions and a drinking problem. Within months of my discharge, I was fired twice and began to have family issues. I was on a downward spiral and started to believe suicide was my only option. Then Michigan legalized medical cannabis. My outside therapist pointed me in the direction of cannabis and helped me obtain my card and become a grower. With his therapy and cannabis, I was able to kick the prescription drugs and the booze. I broke through. I realized there is therapy in helping others with cannabis. It was then that I began to heal. Cannabis saved my life. It gave me purpose and a means to help other veterans. —Barry Richardson, petty officer third class, US Coast Guard

Opioid-related over-dose and suicide are common among vets. (Photo by Mike Whiter)
Opioid-related over-dose and suicide are common among vets. (Photo by Mike Whiter)

I served my country from 1993–97 in the 82nd Airborne Division. While serving as a medical specialist, I was exposed to and trained to treat all levels of injures, both on and off the battlefield, from PTSD to bullet wounds. During service, I sustained injury and was prescribed large doses of opioids, making me a heartless, lifeless zombie. Cannabis replaced them all within one year. It’s my experience that cannabis creates community and that community can save lives. I encourage people to create cannabis-friendly community centers in their hometowns and bring a healthy, healing community together. —Steven Jacob Lull, specialist E-4, US Army

At 23 years old, I walked out of the VA hospital with prescriptions for Percocet, Klonopin and Ambien: Percocet for back pain, Klonopin for anxiety and Ambien for sleep. Little did I know it would mark the beginning of an entirely new kind of battle—one with an enemy I was completely unprepared to fight: prescription-drug addiction. It didn’t take long to develop an all-consuming dependence on opiates, benzodiazepines and sleeping medication. At 28, I made the decision to take my life back and detox off all the meds that had enslaved me. I tried desperately to get into the VA’s inpatient rehab, but after repeatedly being turned away, I knew I was on my own. I locked myself in my apartment, stocked up on food, water and marijuana, and gave my girlfriend my car keys. Seizures, sleepless nights and severe flu-like symptoms lasted over a month. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life. The only substance I allowed myself during that time was marijuana. It gave me the ability to eat, get a bit of sleep, and served to alleviate my back pain and anxiety. It’s been nearly three years since I’ve had a drug prescribed to me, and I have marijuana to thank for turning my life around. I use marijuana almost daily to combat pain, anxiety and sleeplessness. If only the VA had been willing and able to prescribe marijuana from the start, how many lives would be different, better or even saved? It’s “high time” for a change. —Pearson Crosby, staff sergeant, US Marine Corps.

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