Commentary: Medical Cannabis Lifts Veterans Out of Pain and Despair

 

By Jake Altinger

I left the military in April 2013 with a herniated disk at the base of my neck, another in my lower back, and chronic pain in my left knee from a severe injury I suffered in Basic Training, and about a year later I was in a car wreck – a big, gray Jeep smashed into the right side of my tiny Chevy Cobalt going about 30 MPH as I was passing through an intersection.

The accident could not have happened at a worse time: I had just become qualified as a personal trainer and got hired at a 24-Hour Fitness in north Seattle.

Before the wreck, I managed the pain from my military injuries with a bit of light stretching and a few tablets of ibuprofen here and there, but afterward, those methods no longer sufficed.

One day at work, after finishing a workout with my last client of the day, I went to stretch out and suddenly lost the ability to lift or rotate my right arm. All I could do was bend my elbow, and the entire limb went numb. My neck seized up, and a killer headache set in. I saw stars, got tunnel vision, but never blacked out.

That first severe injury put me out of work for two weeks. Several months later, I suffered another that took me out for two months and ultimately ended my personal training career.

My only healthcare was through the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), and they dealt with both injuries the same way: opioids – two big bottles of Vicodin and Tramadol.

I wrestled with opioid dependency and withdrawals once before, when I was in the Army, and if I could have handled the pain some other way, I would have told the VA, “No, thank you.”

But I couldn’t. The pain was too much.

Those two months I spent doped up at home after the second injury were some of the most miserable days of my life.

The opioids threw off my sleep cycles, killed my appetite, and worsened my nightmares. Survivor’s guilt I thought I had repressed came rushing back to the surface. Anxiety and insomnia gave way to depression and oversleeping – a few sleepless nights alone with my hopeless, self-loathing thoughts then back to 24 to 48 hours of violent, horrific dreams. Although I could never go through with it, thoughts of suicide flashed through my mind more than once.

If pain were the only thing those pills were treating, I probably could have stopped taking them a week or so before I actually did.

But it wasn’t.

As the physical pain subsided, the psychological pain worsened, and more pills was a good way to numb them both.

Numerous other combat veterans have fallen into the same vicious cycle of pain, PTSD, addiction and despair, often culminating in unemployment, homelessness, or suicide.

VA statistics as of March 2015 showed that almost two thirds of recent veterans deployed in the Global War on Terror and roughly half of veterans who served in prior conflicts suffer from chronic pain, according to, for which opioids are the VA’s primary treatment.

Veterans are 10 times more likely to abuse opioids than average Americans, according to former VA Secretary Robert McDonald, and a 2011 study of the VA system revealed that veterans are twice as likely to die from accidental opioid overdoses. In Colorado, prescription opioids were a factor in 18 percent of veteran suicides in 2014.

The VA also estimates that PTSD afflicts about 30 percent of Vietnam veterans, up to 12 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans.

Because of the wide range of symptoms PTSD manifests itself in, these vets are often prescribed amphetamines, sleeping pills, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, or any combination of the above. All these medications come with their own risks of dependency and abuse and, especially when combined with opioids, can cause fatal drug interactions.

The Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) found that people with PTSD – veterans and nonveterans alike – are 300-400 percent more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder.

Consequently, veterans like myself with both chronic pain and PTSD are an extremely high-risk population when it comes to substance abuse and overdose deaths.

“We do not have another silver bullet that we can say, ‘Instead of opioids, try this,’” Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the VA’s deputy under-secretary for health, told FRONTLINE Enterprise Journalism Group last year.

It may not be the silver bullet Clancy is looking for, but I have found a highly effective alternative treatment for both my chronic pain and PTSD: medical cannabis.

Cannabis is a major reason I never hit rock bottom like so many other veterans in my shoes have. When I got out of the army in 2013, cannabis had just become recreationally legal in Washington state, where I was living at the time.

Where the VA failed me, the pot shops saved me.

As I weaned off the opioids, cannabis alleviated the nausea from the withdrawals, revived my appetite, and helped me settle back into a regular sleep cycle.

Not only does cannabis effectively treat my all symptoms, it does so without any of the detrimental side effects that come with opioid painkillers – no dependency, no withdrawals. Smoking cannabis eases my social anxiety, alleviates my depression and survivor’s guilt, and allows me to sleep without suffering through horrifying nightmares.

When my neck, back or knees get too aggravated, I eat high-potency cannabis edibles to ease the pain.

Cannabis also helped another veteran buddy of mine here in Colorado Springs who goes by Griz (not the musician/DJ).

Griz was an Army Ranger during the 1989 invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield. He left the army in 1992, later reenlisted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and deployed four times to the Middle East with the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson.

Griz endured a traumatic brain injury and severe joint damage when an improvised explosive device detonated next to his vehicle.

“I got blasted out of the gunner’s turret, like a circus clown out of cannon,” Griz said. “It was like every joint in my body had been dislocated, but my skin and muscles somehow held everything together – kept my limbs from ripping off.”

When he got out of the army, doctors told Griz he could eventually end up in wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Griz was on a cocktail of at least 8 prescription medications from the DOD and VA, including Vicodin, OxyContin, antidepressants, antipsychotics, sleeping pills, and corticosteroids, and at least once a week went to the hospital to receive a heavy dose of ketamine.

“There were a bunch of us there – other vets just like me,” Griz said. “They’d shoot us up with ketamine, and we’d just sit there and drool on ourselves for hours.”

He became depressed, lethargic, and bed-ridden. He gained an enormous amount of weight, peaking at over 300 pounds.

That was before his girlfriend convinced him to try cannabis in 2011, shortly after he got out of the military.

“Wow! I’m not in pain, and my thoughts are actually clear,” Griz said, recalling his thoughts the first time he smoked cannabis. “This is how I want to feel. This is how I should feel.”

It was the first time Griz slept through the night since high school. The next day, Griz threw out all his medications and never went back to them.

Griz said that cannabis doesn’t kill his pain completely, like opioids do, but it makes his pain manageable, and is highly effective for treating his PTSD as well.

“The opioids don’t do anything for the nightmares, and the trouble sleeping, and the mood swings, and the depression – that feeling of impending doom, like the world’s going to come to an end,” he said.

Griz lost over 100 pounds in the first six months after he started using cannabis. He became more lively, energetic, and social.

“I feel everything I went through created an imbalance in me, and marijuana rebalances me.”

Thousands of other veterans like Griz and myself have found relief from chronic pain and PTSD through medical cannabis– relief that no number or combination of prescription drugs could offer.

Yet veterans’ access to this life-saving medication remains severely restricted. Because the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule 1 narcotic with “no accepted medical use” – the same classification as LSD and heroin – the VA prohibits doctors from prescribing, recommending, or discussing cannabis with their patients.

Only veterans lucky enough to live in a state where cannabis is legal have access to it and must pay for it out of their own pockets.

However, there has been some progress on making cannabis available to veterans.

Thanks to the advocacy of Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access (VMCA), veterans who use medical marijuana can no longer be penalized by the VA for using marijuana in legal states, as long as they do so in compliance with that state’s laws. Prior to the VA’s new policy decision, any veteran caught using marijuana would be cut off completely and permanently from their VA healthcare, regardless of the marijuana laws in the state where the veteran resided.

Also, the New York Times recently reported that the American Legion, one of the largest veterans advocacy organizations with over two million members, is petitioning Congress to remove cannabis from the list of Schedule 1 drugs and move it to a lesser schedule.

The group is also requesting that the DEA license more private marijuana growers for medical research.

A multitude of studies have confirmed marijuana’s therapeutic effects for treatment of chronic pain and mental illness, along with a plethora of other illnesses and ailments. Furthermore, overdosing on cannabis is virtually impossible, whereas the opioids, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, sleeping pills and amphetamines the DOD and VA frequently overprescribe to treat the same conditions are killing tens of thousands of Americans every year.

For the federal government to keep cannabis illegal in the highest degree is an outright betrayal to our nation’s veterans, and the countless other Americans, whose lives might be saved by it. Congress should heed the calls of VMCA and the American Legion and reschedule cannabis immediately.

 

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