America's Vets Wage War for Medical Weed—We All Win

U.S. Veterans are leading the charge for cannabis as a viable PTSD treatment.

“I was drinking and trying to take as many pills as possible so I wouldn’t wake up the next day,” Jose Martinez, a U.S. military veteran who did service in Afghanistan, tells THE KIND. “If I woke up, I would try to take at least five more the day after that. I had never been addicted to anything before that. All I ever had tried was cannabis.”

Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every 24 hours in America. This statistic is jarring. And it’s the rallying cry that brings veterans and advocacy groups together. It is offered both in honor of the dead, and as a catalyst to spark change in the fight for the Department of Veterans Affairs to acknowledge medical cannabis as a viable and accepted treatment option for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

a growing number of veterans cite marijuana as an effective form of treatment for symptoms brought on by PTSD.

The driving narrative is that these American suicides are closely tied to a mix of depression and anxiety brought on by PTSD—something many veterans suffer after the stresses of military life—a narrative confirmed by a 2014 study that concluded veterans are at higher suicide risk than the general population.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “About 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20 percent) who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year.” The department estimates that “30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.” Noting a 2012 suicide data report, the VA finds that a majority of veteran suicides are among male vets in their 50s.

PTSD is as broad and widespread as it is debilitating. It can be caused by much more than just the hellfire and explosive trauma associated with warfare. PTSD can stem from sexual or social trauma, something that occurs among military personnel, but often goes underreported or is left out of the media cycle. According to the VA, 23 percent of women in the military report experiencing sexual assault while serving. Additionally, 55 percent of women and 38 percent of men experienced some form of sexual harassment—defined as less than assault—during their service.

While potential causes for veterans' PTSD are apparent and ample, the discussion is shifting to how can the condition be treated effectively, and how can others be spared from similar tragic outcomes?

Veterans commonly describe VA-endorsed treatment regimens heavy on medications—antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and anti-anxiety pills—that are believed to exacerbate the symptoms they’re prescribed to treat. Some veterans report being prescribed as many as seven different meds at once.

“Cannabis allows me to go out and live life normally," Martinez says. "I’ve gotten married since I’ve been back. I’m living life."

A growing number of veterans who served in Vietnam, the Middle East, stateside or elsewhere, cite marijuana as an effective treatment for symptoms brought on by PTSD. The fight to gain VA approval and access to medical marijuana has landed veteran-backed advocacy groups in the front lines of what has moved from a grassroots movement to a major narrative in the national discussion.

The VA is a federal government agency. All employees must follow federal laws. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the Drug Enforcement Administration; so VA doctors are prohibited from legally prescribing cannabis for any treatment. On top of that restriction, the VA cites a lack of scientific evidence supporting claims of weed's medicinal merit.  A 2008 memorandum held that: “VA should not authorize the completion of forms seeking recommendation or opinions regarding participation in such a program. Applicable statutes and regulations do not require VA physicians to complete such forms.” This edict was enforced even in states where medical marijuana is legal and PTSD is a qualifying condition for receiving a medical marijuana recommendation.

Until lately, testing positive for marijuana was in violation of a veteran’s opioid pain care agreement and could result in the VA revoking a patients' pain medicine. This catch 22 discourages many veterans from seeking any care from the VA at all. In 2011, the department issued a directive that prevented VA doctors from cutting off medical marijuana patients in legal states from prescription pain killers. As of 2014, veterans participating in state-run medical marijuana programs cannot be denied VHA services, though they must document their cannabis use through a series of forms submitted to the VA. 

Image courtesy Department of Veterans Affairs.

This is progress in the eyes of people such as Jose Martinez, who suffers from PTSD after an IED explosion in Afghanistan claimed both of his legs, his right arm, and nearly 30 percent of his internal organs.

I meet Martinez on a hot Saturday afternoon at an event in Santa Monica promoting veteran access to cannabis. He shares a joint with friends as we speak yards from the beach.

“Before I found cannabis," Martinez tells me. "I wanted to die from the moment I woke up in the morning. I was taking so many pills, I didn’t care if I even left the house. Half the time, I didn’t even get out of bed.” He tells me that following the initial surgeries required for his legs, he has avoided the VA, and does not receive treatment for his PTSD from it.

Martinez is part of Weed for Warriors, a northern California-based advocacy group promoting the benefits of cannabis in treating symptoms associated with PTSD. Veteran groups are the backbone of the movement to certify PTSD as a malady approved for medical marijuana treatment. The WFW and other veteran groups hope to influence civilians who have shared similar experiences. Martinez is scheduled to speak for a crowd that has assembled in Pacific Palisades Park for a 4.20 mile walk/run that will kick off a nationwide tour, culminating in Washington D.C. As inspiring as it is tragic, his story is representative of the plight of many veterans across the country.

“Cannabis allows me to go out and live life normally," Martinez says. "I’ve gotten married since I’ve been back. I’m living life."

 Jose Martinez speaking at the 2015 Cannaball Run For Veterans. Photo: Ben Karris/The KIND

Sean Kieran, a Weed for Warriors featured speaker, addresses the crowd: “We have Senator Feinstein in California, who barely recognizes the potential of cannabis. We’ve got to get out there and make the politicians fear us.”

Most of the men and women I speak with at this event describe a similar VA experience—prescriptions for benzos, mood enhancers, and antipsychotics contributing to feelings of isolation. Cannabis, in almost every story, inspired the opposite, a willingness to connect, allowing them to embrace the day. Martinez laughs that he’s on the beach, having just participated in a 4 mile walk. According to him, all it took was a little love and support from his family and friends, and a few tokes from a leafy green substance.

A doctor at a Los Angeles area VA clinic who requested anonymity, tells THE KIND that if his patients are open about their marijuana use, he is open to discussion on how it helps them treat their symptoms.

“When I work with patients self-medicating with cannabis, I mostly listen,” he says. In this doctor's viewpoint, what works for some sufferers may not help others. In the end, being inexperienced in working with cannabis as a form of treatment, and a federal employee, he's hesitant to take a position and unable to prescribe cannabis. But he listens. “I do see merit in the discussing anything that people feels helps them.”

Veterans—or anyone for that matter—treating PTSD with cannabis is not a regimen confined to the sun-soaked, marijuana-rich California coast. People are aligned with this cause, everywhere, and it is being heavily pursued as an area of study that could yield exceptional results. 

Earlier this week, the Daily Beast profiled Retired Marine Staff Sergeant Mike Whiter, who staged a protest at Philadelphia’s Veteran’s Day Parade in the form of 22 people lying in formation to represent the daily number of veteran suicides. Whiter is a vocal proponent for treating PTSD with cannabis and credits the herb with saving him from the pharmaceutical fate that befalls so many. He has shot a photography series called “Operation Overmed” that casts military veterans as subjects against the backdrop of the devastation caused by these medications—a project he credits cannabis with giving him the confidence to undertake.

Its not like the Department of Veterans Affairs is operating with malcontent. Much is offered to our soldiers through myriad benefits programs and services. Activists acknowledge that the VA does a lot of good. It is simply a government organization bound by bureaucracy and the federal laws and national guidelines which govern its existence. 

All attempts to speak with a representative from the public affairs office for this article were re-directed to the VA website, where to its credit, everything is spelled out fairly clearly, but with a seeming reluctance to embrace progress.

Mental health treatment isn’t a cut-and-dry issue for veterans or for anyone else. The world we live in will never be a conflict-free zone. Wars leave nobody unscathed—whether they’re fought on foreign soil or between our ears and behind our eyes.

But if those fighting them say that smoking a little cannabis makes it all just a little less horrible, perhaps we should listen.