At Honeysuckle, we’ve had ample opportunity to discover the truth about cannabis and the latest innovations in its use, especially as treatment for medical conditions such as seizures, sleep disorders, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But we are always seeking wider conversation to include people who for many reasons may not be familiar with that sector. Actor and writer Douglas Taurel, creator of the acclaimed solo show The American Soldier, helped us bridge this gap with the following story about veterans and medical cannabis. Here, he shares testimonials from veterans and professionals serving their community who have a variety of opinions about medical marijuana use. If we are ever to expand beyond Reefer Madness thinking, these are good first steps.
In states where medical marijuana has been made legal, opioid deaths have dropped by 25%, with a similar impact on hospitalizations from overdoses according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. We are a nation digging frantically for solutions to combat the opioid epidemic that is killing so many of our citizens and veterans. And with veteran suicide rates due to the emotional trauma from war and combat at around 20 per day, we need to consider medical marijuana as a possible solution to these problems.
I have been performing a play called The American Soldier for more than three years now and have been blessed to develop relationships with many veterans and therapists. After each performance, veterans share their sufferings with PTSD from combat and their difficult adjustment back to society after their service ends. These conversations are always emotional, moving and inspiring. I believe we owe to our heroes the opportunity to try every possible alternative to help ease their emotional trauma and chronic pain, so that they can start their new chapters in life.
A January 2017 National Academy of Sciences study stated that there was “conclusive or substantial” evidence that cannabis is effective in treating chronic pain, moderate evidence that cannabis helps with sleep. And there is additional research that shows the link between lack of sleep and suicidal ideation. (as cited in IAVA’s Policy Priorities for 2018)
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), states:
Since at least as far back as 2013, when we first started surveying our members on this issue, the vast majority of our members support medicinal marijuana. Veterans consistently and passionately have communicated that cannabis offers effective help in tackling some of the most pressing injuries when returning from war….That’s why we’re working with partners to implement common sense legislation and policy sanctioning the use of medical marijuana by veterans.
Dave Williams saw combat on a regular basis throughout his service from 2008-2013 at Fort Campbell, KY with the 101st Airborne Division and through one tour in Afghanistan during the years 2010-2011. He was a military brat who had received a scholarship after college through the ROTC and went straight into the army.
I wasn’t on medication before the Army that’s one thing I remember for sure. I didn’t need antidepressants or anxiety meds. After I returned, I was prescribed three different types of anti-depression anti-anxiety drugs. All they do is make me feel like an exhausted zombie. Cannabis has helped me in the few instances where I’ve used it. It calms my mind and my body and allows me to focus better and puts me in a better mood.
Susie Reese, who works at the VA, says, “I personally know vets who use medical marijuana to cope with their physical pain and mental issues. They prefer it over prescription drugs because they feel it helps them more and is non addictive compared to a drug like OxyContin. They also like the fact that it’s a ‘natural’ alternative versus a man-made narcotic.”
Lisa Williams who also works at the VA, says “A lot of veterans turn to the use of either heavy alcohol or prescription opioids to help them relieve their PTSD for fear of using medical marijuana because of it being illegal and the consequences from being caught using it. So they resort to alcohol or prescription drugs as it feels like a safer option.”
VA physicians still cannot refer patients to legally sanctioned state medical cannabis programs because of the federal prohibition. Moreover, patients are not allowed to have any cannabis on VA property, even if it is medically prescribed to them and the state they are living in allows it. And VA employees are still barred from using any form of cannabis, including medical cannabis, while roughly one-third of VA employees are veterans and may want access to cannabis as a treatment option. (as cited in IAVA’s Policy Priorities for 2018)
Further, in opposition to strong and rising popular opinion across the veteran community, and despite protests from many who posit medical cannabis could serve as an alternative to opioids and antidepressants, the VA Secretary announced in early 2018 that the VA will not conduct research into whether medical cannabis could help veterans suffering from PTSD and chronic pain.
In my research, one of the issues with anti-anxiety drugs like SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) is that when you stop taking them, they create a withdrawal effect which makes you want to take more. Medical marijuana does not have that effect. It seems that perhaps the impact of both SSRIs and marijuana can help veterans, but the lack of withdrawal from using marijuana makes that their preferred treatment. It doesn’t mean that there is not a place for anti-anxiety drugs, but simply that we should understand why some drugs are working for certain populations and why some are not. And whether medical marijuana could add to their treatments in a way that benefits them and also society.
There are two molecules found in cannabis; one is THC which what gets you “high” and the other is CBD. Scientists are finding that CBD helps treat anxiety, nausea, inflammation and post traumatic stress disorder. Israel has already started to understand this potential benefit; in that country, facilities are growing and cultivating CBD-rich cannabis strands and giving them to Israeli soldiers immediately when they are injured on the battlefield, even before they go to the MASH units.
The main reason the research on marijuana and PTSD is not found in the United States is because the drug is classified as a Schedule One drug, which means that it is illegal by the federal government and therefore is considered the same type of drug as LSD, Ecstasy, heroin and cocaine. And because it is classified as such, it cannot receive any federal funding for research in order to better study the drug and its potential benefits. This is bad news not only for veterans but for all the other communities who report benefits from using medical marijuana.
Lacy Key, a therapist who helps veterans deal with PTSD in upstate New York has a different opinion: “I get how it can help you feel better from chronic pain sometimes but it never lasts, and it tends to lower veterans’ motivation, drive and leads them to abusing more alcohol. I think it is only a temporary fix for a bigger issue; it is only a Band Aid.”
However, I believe that the idea that “weed” makes you a pothead or lazy is way too much of a generalization. I drink socially when I go out, but that does not make me a drunk. We are too complex as human beings to assume these kinds of general statements. Perhaps we know someone one who is lazy, is not motivated and happens to smoke “weed” and we classify him as a “lazy pothead,” but he might be lazy even if he didn’t smoke. So to say that drinking alcohol makes you a drunk is as general as saying using cannabis makes you a pothead. We should also remember that people who are using cannabis for treatment are medical patients. You wouldn’t call someone getting chemotherapy lazy. It’s the same when talking about medical marijuana.
Scott Craig, a Marine from Texas says:
Doug, I have a lot of veteran buddies who struggle with PTSD and I know some who use marijuana. It helps some maintain a better quality of life without negatively impacting others. And I have friends who use marijuana and are trying to make ends meet and still trying to figure things out. There are so many underlying things which may cause someone to struggle with PTSD and some not struggle, that you never know what’s going on in someone life until you start peeling away the onion.
Economically, all the research jobs around medical marijuana that we could be creating here in the United States are currently being done in Europe and Canada. And with our national debt at around 15 trillion dollars, why not tax medical marijuana like we do tobacco and alcohol to help find a way out of our nation’s debt? As long as people have their medical cards and IDs, there would be no greater risk than with any prescription drug.
And so it is clear to me that we need to explore medical marijuana as an alternative considering the billions of dollars we are spending on therapy and prescription drugs that are not helping our veterans. There is enough smoke here, pun intended, that our government needs to change the rating of cannabis so that we can do the extensive research and scientific investigation into the benefits it has for our suffering heroes.
To learn more about IAVA and its resources for veterans, visit iava.org.
An actor, writer, and producer, Douglas Taurel is the creator of the solo show The American Soldier, with which he tours internationally and has performed Off-Broadway; at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; and the Library of Congress, among other distinguished venues. The American Soldier was nominated for an Amnesty International Award and is being adapted into a webseries in partnership with Thomas Edison State Military University. Taurel premiered his newest solo work, An American Soldier’s Journey Home: The Diary of Irving Greenwald, last November at the Library of Congress.
Taurel can be seen on television and in films including Mr. Robot, The Americans, Person of Interest, Nurse Jackie, The Cobbler, The Kindergarten Teacher, and the forthcoming Into the Valley. His writing can be found on Backstage.com, Stage32.com, and The Daily Actor among other publications. Visit douglastaurel.com and theamericansoldiersoloshow.com to learn more, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.