High anxiety for veterans: Medical marijuana contradictions

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Former Marine Erick Benson is off the front line, but readjusting to civilian life has been a new battle. “I was having a bad day,” Benson said, recalling a recent morning while trying to make coffee. He became so enraged when he was unable to get the carafe under the grounds, he threw the coffee maker.

It was a classic example of his post traumatic stress disorder. The fits of anger aren’t rare when he’s not treating the malady.

His PTSD isn’t the only thing causing him angst. Getting treatment is frustrating as well.

Benson points to a hookah-like pipe sitting on the glass table next to him. He inhales marijuana through it to reduce the anxiety that experts say often plagues ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. He gets high, and reason replaces rage.

“I didn’t need to go that far at all,” he said.

Benson is comfortable with choosing marijuana over prescription drugs to treat his PTSD. The federal and Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy, not so much. And that’s led to a new battle for Benson and thousands like him.

Benson has a drawer stuffed with pills. Pills for blood pressure, For migraines. For pain. For depression. Benson said the prescriptions from VA doctors started doing more harm than good. To combat insomnia he would take three high-dosage Lunesta pills that made him “black out right away.”

Last February, he had a severe reaction to a medicine for migraines called Imitrex, and Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant.

“I was in the kitchen in the middle of getting a haircut, and the lady that was giving me a haircut said I was turning green,” he remembered. “Next thing, I’m on the ground shouting, ‘someone poisoned me.’”

His anxious present comes from his military past.

The 24-year-old Aurora resident was medically discharged in 2010 after his first and only nine-month tour in Afghanistan. Denver and Aurora VA doctors prescribed a laundry list of medications for everything including ringing ears, traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

They didn’t work. He didn’t like the way he felt. He said marijuana works without making him feel like a zombie at home or at school as a student at the Community College of Aurora.

“I’m still able to learn, I’m actually communicating with other students,” he said.

Now, he just wants to find a way to get his treatment squared away. He is wary about going “legit” and getting a medical marijuana card because it could affect his benefits.

Benson isn’t alone in his confusion because VA officials specifically sanction his ability to legally use medical marijuana, but doctors themselves are unable to prescribe it or even agree on whether it’s an appropriate treatment.

Under a 2011 VA directive, Colorado veterans who obtain state medical marijuana cards cannot be prohibited from getting other standard VA medical treatment.

“We don’t tell veterans that they cannot use marijuana if they’re using it under the auspices of the state program,” said Dr. Michael Craine, Chief of Health Psychology for VA Eastern Colorado. “But we cannot tell them to use marijuana.”

To add to the confusion, Colorado’s state marijuana laws prohibits the use of medical marijuana for PTSD. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana use, but only six of those states permit PTSD treatment, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said the question of medical marijuana use for PTSD treatment is contentious among the medical community.

“We heard both from doctors who felt that, particularly, people coming back from Afghanistan might be assisted (by it), and we heard from doctors who thought” there was no evidence supporting it, Smith said.

Because the drug is still illegal under federal law, there is a lack of federally funded studies on medical marijuana. That has been a challenge to understanding its impact on various conditions, Smith said.

It’s a big local issue in Aurora, where city officials say 32,000 vets call the city home. In August, the Aurora Veterans Commission addressed this and other issues facing the veterans community, including substance abuse and suicide. A 2011 National Institute of Health report said prescription drug abuse among U.S. military personnel tripled from 2005 to 2008. Alcohol abuse posed the greatest health risk for active and retired military, according to the study.

Leona Abdullah-Allen, a psychotherapist and veteran based in Colorado Springs with 23 years of military service, finds it hard to believe that the military won’t endorse medical marijuana while it condones a culture of alcohol. “They always taught us, you fight hard and then you celebrate,” she said. “When we celebrated, it was alcohol.”

Abdullah-Allen recalled numerous veterans she met while working as a retirement service officer at Ft. Carson who she said were involved in fatal car crashes as a result of alcohol consumption. She believes the soldiers who turned to marijuana fared much better than their counterparts. “They kind of calmed down a little bit,” she said. “The situations weren’t as bad, weren’t as detrimental.”

For the past few months, Benson has taken the initiative to wean off of his meds slowly. This was recommended by his VA doctor when he told her of his plan. He says it’s working for the most part.  He still opens his pill drawer occasionally, mostly when he gets a migraine. He smokes marijuana primarily at night as a way to get to sleep, and sometimes before a test to calm down.

“I don’t feel worse,” he said of the decision. “I sleep better, I don’t have to worry about running out of pills.”

 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.