‘Plants Over Pills:’ Veterans rally for safe access to cannabis

Matt Saintsing
May 29, 2018 - 4:24 pm

Matt Saintsing for Connecting Vets

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Veterans from across the nation came together in front of the White House Memorial Day weekend to call for something that the vast majority of veterans support: safe and reliable access to marijuana. 

Vets, their families, and marijuana advocates decended upon Washington, D.C. for Veterans Rally 2018 to share stories, remember the fallen, and to help change what they say is a stigma surrounding cannabis use. This year's rally, dubbed "plants over pills," focused on marijuana as a safer alternative to potentially deadly and addictive opioids. 

Dozens came to rally, show support, and call on the federal government to end their prohibition on cannabis. And to show other veterans that help is possible. 

Robert Bolis

Robert Bolis deployed in September 2007 with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (AASLT) on a 15 month deployment to Samarra, Iraq, where he sustained combat injuries that included four broken vertebraes and multiple herniated discs in his cervical, thorasic, and lumbar spine regions. 

Matt Saintsing for Connecting Vets

Shortly after getting out of the Army in 2010, his doctors prescribed him morphine, dilaudid, valium, and zoloft medications. "I had lost a good 50 pounds on them," says Bolis. His wife, Rachel, began doing research of her own and begged the VA to help him. That's when he stopped taking the prescription pills and switched over to cannabis. 

"As of one year and one month, I've been off opiate medications and marijuana has helped me so much," he says. "It's helping me eat, it's helping me sleep, I'm not depressed, I'm myself again. I don't have that feeling of I need medication to feel normal again." 

It's not uncommon for veterans who deal with chronic pain to be precribed a regimen of pills that they say can turn them into zombies. It's known colloquially as dealing with the "combat cocktail," but marijuana has antecdotally shown to help with those symptoms. 

Bolis still experiences pain but says cannabis helps. He was motivated to "get off the pills to have a good quality of life." 

But as a resident of Virginia, he runs the risk of potentially going to jail if he's found with marijuana in his car, in his pocket, or in his home.

"I do not hold felony amounts, I just use it for medicinal purposes and to be off any anti-depressants that make me even worse or make me want to commit suicide—cannabis helps with that," adds Bolis. 

In Virginia, first-time offenders caught with less than a half ounce of marijuana can expect a misdemeanor charge with penalties up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, a far cry from the greener pastures of Washington, D.C. where pot is legal to grow, own, and consume. 

Bolis says he supports marijuana legalization, and wants it regulated "just like alcohol is." 

"I see more fights at bars, I've never seen a fight over marijuana." 

Pearson Crosby

Crosby made the trip all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska to advocate for veteran access to marijuana, a plant he credits helping his battle with heroin addiction.

During his four year enlistment with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Crosby deployed twice to Anbar province, Iraq, once to Hit and al-Baghdadi, respectively. It was at an outpost just outside Baghdadi where he was injured. 

Matt Saintsing for Connecting Vets

“We had a suicide vehicle-borne IED drive through our gate, it took out a couple of Iraqi police officers and a handful of Marines got purple hearts that day,” he says. 

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Crosby returned to the City of Brotherly Love after getting out of the Marine Corps in 2008. He has a 90 percent VA disabiltiy rating, and after a few trips to the VA he realized he was becoming dependent on opioids. 

He wanted to stop using opiates, so the VA clinic told him to visit a methadone clinic. "A terrible experience," says Crosby. 

Six days a week, he made the 90 minute drive to receive liquid methadone. "That's where I was introduced to heroin," he says. 

"If you didn't feel like waiting, you had guys selling crack cocaine and heroin on the stairs, ten feet away." 

One day, he was especially tired of waiting and purchased his first bag of heroin. 

“It took me about 11 months to get off heroin, once I started,” he adds, "I tried so hard to get in an inpatient program through the VA, but because I wasn't suicidal, they wouldn't let me in." 

Photo Courtesy of Dreamstime

Crosby slipped through the cracks of the very system he was told would help him with his wounds of war, both invisible and plainly seen. So, he locked himself in his apartment for a month and dealt with withdrawals of benzodiazepines and opiates. 

"The only medication I used was cannabis and long cold showers," sayd Crosby. "I don't think I would have been able to recover if I didn't have cannabis to help me with the withdrawal symptoms." 

He uses marijuana four to five times a week, to help him sleep or if his back pain "acts up." 

Sarah Steunf

As a New York state medical marijuana patient, Steunf, a former U.S. Army Apache helicopter crew chief, has PTSD and epilepsy, which doctors told her stems from a traumatic brain injury (TBI)

"For a long time I lived on over 13 different medications," syas Steunf. "I've felt like a walking corpse, essentially a zombie, and I was just in survival mode trying to get through that day, that hour, that minute, that second." 

Photo by C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS

It wasn't until she began consuming marijuana that she "saw thngs more clearly." 

"The doctors didn't know which medications worked with eachother, and worked with my seizures," she says. "It was like being blindfolded, trying to shoot a bullseye." 

But even when the seizures stopped and she was able to sleep, suicidal and homicidal thoughts persisted. It was only after two failed suicide attempts that she found herself in jail "hoping there was another way." 

That's when she started researching online and found veterans who were doing Yoga, working with horses for therapy, and art. Then, she found a YouTube video where a veteran explained how cannabidol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive chemical found in marijuana, helped with seizures. 

“I found out it was a cannabinoid, then I found out what a cannabinoid is, and the next thing you know I’m calling a buddy asking him to bring over some cannabis," she continues.

Three years later, she made the decision to stop taking her epilepsy medications. "At first the tremors were bad, my sleep became worse, I had light sensitivity, but I wasn't having seizures," she says. 

She combined her cannabis use with talk therapies and exposure therapies for PTSD. "There are alternatives and there are other ways, and what may work for me, may not work for you, but I know I'm seizure free, I am suididal ideation free, I'm sleeping better, I'm married, I have a child, and I'm going back to school," she says with a huge grin on her face. 

"That's why I'm calling for more research." 

Eric Goepel

U.S. Army veteran Eric Goepel is also founder and CEO of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on changing federal cannabis laws. 

"We want the laws to reflect that cannabis should not be considered a schedule I substance—it does have medical value," says Goepel. “To that end, we’re trying to drive research into the VA to study its applications and work ultimately to provide every veteran, no matter which zip code they live in, access to cannabis.”

Of particular interest to Goepel and the Coaltion is HR 5520, the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act, which has the distinction of being the only piece of federal marijuana legislation to have ever moved out of committee. 

"Essentially, the bill would establish a framework and calls on the VA to draw up a plan to implement cannabis research," says Goepel. "Or, if they decide not to, they have to justify why not." 

The bill currently isn't scheduled for a full House vote, so Goepel says its future isn't certain. He implores "anyone who cares about veterans, cannabis, research, or just science, can text VCC to 52886 and take action." There also exists companion legislation in the Senate with S. 2796

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