After serving in the U.S. Navy for 10 years, Shane O’Neil left the service in 2009 with a lower spine injury and confirmed PTSD. In between and during fits of insomnia, his life was wracked with anxiety and pain. His story is not unique.
Treatment from the Veterans Administration clinic brought opiates, amphetamines, benzodiazepines and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) into his life in massive quantities. At his peak, O’Neil was downing 1,400 pills each month.
“I was taking 30-some pills everyday,” O’Neil says. “And this was just for the four conditions I was treating. All the other pills were for the constipation, the anxiety, the loss of sleep, the involuntary movements, all the side effects from all these drugs.”
Like much of the U.S. veteran population — a demographic poisoned with alarmingly high suicide rates, to the tune of an estimated 40 suicides each day — O’Neil transformed into an opiate addict and, in his words, “a raging alcoholic.” The nightmare at home was settling in.
When O’Neil returned to the VA for help — treatment for the treatment he was already undergoing — their answer was to put him on suboxone and more SSRIs. He sought relief elsewhere, in the form of cannabis. Within nine weeks, O’Neil’s habit had dropped from 24 mg of pharmaceuitical medicine each day to zero.
“I’m a different person than I was four years ago,” he says. Over the phone, his voice is animated and lively. He leans into the conversation, though each word is tied up with a sense of wariness. He’s not content with how the VA is treating its charges and how the federal government is shuffling its veterans’ troubles under the rug. His experience with marijuana set him on a path to his current post as vice president of the Weed for Warriors project
in Ohio, a budding statewide effort to legalize effective medicine. O'Neil and many others are hoping that veterans returning from conflict won't have to endure pharmaceutical torture at home. Weed, O'Neil says, saved his life.
“It hurt, but I did it,” he says. “They (the VA) refuse to let veterans treat with a safe medication. They would rather prescribe methadone and suboxone for opiate addiction. They would rather press SSRIs. I had a doctor tell me — last week, I had my blood work done — my cholesterol is lower, my blood sugar is lower, my heart rate is better, everything across the board. He said, ‘I’m glad to see you’re doing so well. You need to get back on your meds.'”
This is the crux of a growing movement against an outmoded VA policy — a directive that prohibits doctors from recommending marijuana as a treatment option or even discussing the abstract idea of that option. That VA policy actually expired just this month, though the administration has done nothing to move toward accepting medicinal marijuana as legitimate treatment. (“VA Directives remain in effect with full force even after expiration unless they are officially replaced or rescinded,” Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, said in a public statement.) Essentially, the VA’s self-imposed prohibition continues, even in the 23 states where the medical use of marijuana is actually legal.
To further complicate the matter, veterans who test positive for marijuana could lose certain medical benefits, depending on their particular clinic or physician’s temperament. Marijuana remains a federally designated Schedule-I drug. (Despite O’Neil’s experience, the VA remains clear in its stance: “Marijuana use for medical conditions is an issue of growing concern…[T]here is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD.”)
It would require a new directive from the VA — or Congressional action — to change course on that policy.
With that in mind, alongside the slowly rising wave of states' legalization, federal politicians are beginning to talk with fervor. In late January, a bipartisan group of members of Congress wrote the VA and urged the administration to begin discussing and prescribing medical marijuana. In tandem, the Veterans Equal Access Amendment — H.R. 667
— is currently getting kicked around committees in Congress right now. That resolution would push the VA to discuss medical marijuana with patients. The VA has not issued a formal statement on the matter to date.
Still, however, the growing problem of veterans wracked with opiate addiction problems and boiling rage is not diminishing, according to Rocky Mesarosh, the president of Weed for Warriors in Ohio.
"Almost every single veteran I have talked to has shared how they used to be filled with terrible rage and aggression," Mesarosh told a panel of Ohio senators recently. "Holes in walls, anger outbursts, and just a violent outlook on life. I know I felt this way and I had attempted to take my life while in the Army. My attempt involved taking a bottle of prescribed opiates and drinking a vast quantity of alcohol. I still struggle with generalized anxiety caused by the Army and post traumatic stress from earlier in my life. But I wanted things to get better. That is when I started using cannabis, I found that my mind would quiet and calm down. I didn’t feel violent. Veterans I know talked about how cannabis has allowed them to return to parts of their life that they used to enjoy, such as art and music. I hear nothing but testimonies of cannabis making them a better father/mother, a better husband/wife, and the person their family remembered."
Mesarosh says that the goal for his group is to unite veterans behind this cause, and to align his group's interests with legalization campaigns under way now in the state.
In Ohio this month, national advocacy outfit Marijuana Policy Project unveiled its plans for a medical marijuana amendment issue.
"Also, the Ohio initiative will embrace a healthy, free-market approach to the production of medical marijuana, which will drive down the cost as compared to, say, an oligopoly or a government-run monopoly,” MPP President Rob Kampia wrote. Legalize Ohio 2016, a group that had planned to get a recreational marijuana issue on the November ballot this year, folded its campaign this month and promised to join forces with MPP
in their efforts toward a medical marijuana amendment.
We’ll probably see a draft of the amendment’s ballot language next month. Whether the VA tunes into this campaign remains to be seen.