Veterans and Medical Marijuana
Medical marijuana doesn’t apply to Veterans, troops and veterans risk reprimand from the military if they self-medicate.
Tom couldn’t sleep. He tried prescription sleep aids, but nothing really worked until he he tried marijuana.
“I tried it very sparingly and slept the whole night for the first time in like months,” Tom said.
For members of the U.S. military, admitting or getting caught using marijuana could result in an investigation and in most cases, punishment or separation from the military. Many of the veterans who use marijuana and share their stories prefer to not to disclose their last names.
Attorney Will M. Helixon, a military law expert, says the military follows federal guidelines and still considers marijuana a controlled substance. For someone who is not on active duty, it could marijuana use could result in a discharge, which could close the door for future benefits and career options. Helicon says the State military if marijuana is legal in some states, such as Colorado.
“There are many instances where otherwise lawful conduct is prohibited by the military, marijuana being one of them,” Helixon said. “To not be efficient in your job or to be derelict in your duties is not a crime in the civilian world, but it is in the military.”
Tom, states the prescription sleep aids he was using severe side effects he didn’t care for.
“I tried Ambien and had almost hallucinations, I had really weird dreams that were really uncomfortable and I would wake up groggy and sluggish,” Tom said. “I didn’t feel like my entire brain was waking up at the same time, like a mental hangover. I also tried melatonin … it would let me fall asleep more easily but then I would wake up at 1 a.m. anyway. Over the course of six years, you establish the pattern of always getting your sleep interrupted to go run drills or whatever it is,” Tom said about his time in the Navy.
Marijuana vs. other substances
“The Navy has, I don’t want to say a tradition, but we’re known for being heavy drinkers. There’s that saying ‘drunk as a sailor,’” Tom said. “It’s like a big frat because at every port there’s ‘Let’s go out and get as drunk as possible.’ I thought it was so odd that the Navy was so gung ho about drinking and so against marijuana. I consider them on the same level.”
Juan, who is 50, broke his collarbone from injuries not related to the military, he said.
“I just drank all the time to numb the pain but marijuana works much better and for sleep as well,” Juan said. (Marijuana)“doesn’t really get rid of the pain. It changes it to something more manageable if that makes sense … it like feels good to get it moving, like a massage.”
Juan stated he knows the side effects of alcohol all too well, he has a couple friends recently who died from heavy drinking. He said the drinking culture in the Marines is similar to what Tom described in the Navy.
“I think the amount of opiates being prescribed to people is a little reckless. I don’t take aspirin because I don’t like the idea of drugs,” Juan said. “An opiate can actually kill you if you overdose. With marijuana, that can’t happen. You’re not going to smoke yourself to death.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs
Sam House, a spokesman for the U. S. Department Veterans Affairs for northern Colorado and Cheyenne, said that while marijuana may seem beneficial, it’s masking the real problem.
“When we self-medicate, what happens is we put a Band-Aid over it, whether it’s through some type of substance abuse or alcohol or medical marijuana,” House said. “When you sober up and take the Band-Aid off, the pain is still there. Our goal is to help our veterans without those Band-Aids and without those temporary fixes.”
House said the VA follows the Federal Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency still lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
For instance, veterans are routinely blood-tested every time they go in for a VA appointment, House said. So if a veteran tweaks his or her back in a way for which a doctor would prescribe prescription painkillers, when the bloodwork comes back positive for marijuana, the VA doctor can no longer prescribe the painkillers.
House is a veteran who is diagnosed with PTSD. He said it’s important for veterans to treat the root cause of the side effects with therapy, instead of self-medicating with marijuana.
“The goal of every veteran should be to be normal and to seek out that new normal,” House said. “If someone is on an antidepressant, they may need that for the rest of their lives. Why complicate that with self-medication, which could or could not contribute to that depression?”
Curt Bean, was diagnosed with PTSD after tours in Iraq with the U.S Army.
Bean said he wished the VA would come around and see his perspective on marijuana use for PTSD.
“It’s a matter of time. The longer they wait and drag their feet, the lower the quality of life for veterans and there is some loss of life,” Bean said. “That’s the most upsetting thing — that I’m on this expedition to be able to say that this is a valuable option for the guys and they should be able to use it because it does save lives.”