Make Pot Legal for Veterans With Traumatic Brain Injury
The explosion that wounded me during a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan in 2010 left me with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. In 2012 I was medically retired from the Marine Corps because of debilitating migraines, vertigo and crippling depression. After a nine-year career, I sought care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At first, I didn’t object to the pills that arrived by mail: antidepressants, sedatives, amphetamines and mood stabilizers. Stuff to wake me up. Stuff to put me down. Stuff to keep me calm. Stuff to rile me up. Stuff to numb me from the effects of my wars as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stuff to numb me from the world all around.
The T.B.I. brings on almost daily migraines, and when they come, it’s as if the blast wave from the explosion in Afghanistan is still reverberating through my brain, shooting fresh bolts of pain through my skull, once again leaving me incapacitated. Initially the prescriptions helped — as they do for many veterans. But when I continued to feel bad, the answers from my doctors were always the same: more pills. And higher dosages. And more pills to counteract the side effects of those higher dosages. Yet none of them quite worked.
One thing did. In 2013, a friend rolled a joint and handed it to me, urging me to smoke it later. It will relieve your symptoms, he promised. That night I anxiously paced around my empty house. I hesitated to light it up because I’d always bought into the theory of weed as a “gateway drug.” But after a few tokes, I stretched out and fell asleep. I slept 10 hours instead of my usual five or six. I woke up feeling energized and well rested. I didn’t have nightmares or remember tossing or turning throughout the night, as I usually did. I was, as the comedian Katt Williams puts it, “hungry, happy, sleepy.”
With the help of my civilian psychiatrist, I began trading my pill bottles for pipes and papers. I also began to feel less numb. I started to smile more often. I thought I had found a miracle drug. There was just one problem: That drug was illegal.
In 21 states, including North Carolina, where I live, any use of marijuana is forbidden under state law. The current punishments for those who possess or cultivate cannabis — even for medical purposes — may include a felony conviction and imprisonment, loss of child custody and permanent damage to their livelihood. The V.A. encourages veterans to discuss their cannabis use with their doctors, but because cannabis is also prohibited under federal law, the V.A. cannot prescribe it in any form — thereby denying countless veterans relief to many mental health symptoms and other service-connected disabilities.
The medical benefits of marijuana for the more than 360,000 post-Sept. 11 veterans who have brain injuries are not universally recognized. (As many as one in five veterans are thought to have post-traumatic stress.) But medical experts like Dr. Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist and former associate director of the National Institute of Mental Health, believe that “medical marijuana absolutely belongs in the pharmacy for post-traumatic stress and brain injury treatment.” The V.A., Dr. Ochberg said, “is failing veterans by not making cannabis a treatment option.”
Read more at nytimes.com