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Combat Vets Find Peace Through Cannabis

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Mark Carillo was only 18 years old when he left for the first of his two combat tours in Iraq. He fought in Fallujah with the United States Marine Corps Second Reconnaissance Battalion before he was old enough to drink.

The gravity of his deployment was not lost on him.

“Before you leave, you write your own obituary,” he said. “When I got back, I was just happy to be alive. I partied and drank every day.”

But like many other returning veterans, Carillo found himself struggling with readjustment to civilian life. The escape of drinking wasn’t helping.

“I was self-medicating with alcohol,” he said. “I was angry, getting into bar fights, having relationship issues, everything — just not being happy with life.”

Then, around 2008, Carillo’s doctor informed him that he was exhibiting early signs of pancreatitis and that he needed to stop drinking immediately.

On that same day, a serendipitous visit to a friend in Mendocino County permanently altered the course of Carillo’s life. That friend was cultivating medical cannabis.

And in a real way, cannabis may have saved Carillo’s life, and helped him find peace after wartime.

KILLER PTSD

Between 18 and 22 military veterans committed suicide every day between 1999 and 2010, according to data released by the Department of Veteran Affairs in 2013.

U.S. Army Sgt. Kevin Manigault on patrol in Afganistan in 2012. (Flickr/DVIDSHUB)

U.S. Army Sgt. Kevin Manigault on patrol in Afganistan in 2012. (Flickr/DVIDSHUB)

That’s about one veteran suicide per hour for more than 20 years.

And while veterans make up only 7 percent of the general population, they comprise about 20 percent of the national suicide rate. 

Figures like that are alarming. But because of the slippery nature of official statistics, they only hint at the scope of the challenges facing returning the 2.6 million returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re doing the shock and awe about the suicides, because people don’t know yet,” Carillo said. “They’re still talking about how many people died during the war.”

When the US government commissioned the National Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Study in the 1980s, it was determined that 15 percent of “Vietnam theater veterans” had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the time and that 30 percent had experienced chronic symptoms of PTSD at some time since returning from their deployments.

But a re-analysis of the study in 2003 revealed that more than two decades later, “a large majority” of Vietnam veterans — four out of five — were still struggling with symptoms of PTSD.

This means that the real cost of the War on Terror has yet to be known — and it will likely be felt for a generation. Of the Americans who fought overseas since 2001, about 1 million have been seen in VA clinics or hospitals for some kind of affliction, according to statistics released by the Veterans Administration in 2012.

How many of these veterans have PTSD? We have no idea. What we know for certain is that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of veterans are struggling to cope with the often debilitating repercussions of their service.

And many of them say they aren’t getting the help they need through the VA, which relies heavily on pharmaceutical antidepressants and opiate painkillers to treat a diagnosis of PTSD, which lacks a specialized medication.

Official data shows that members of the US armed forces are prescribed narcotic painkillers at three times the rate of civilians, and that prescription medication is involved in nearly one-third of suicides by active duty military.

Unsurprisingly, in the face of such odds some veterans are looking for a better way to address the physical and psychological wounds of war, and many believe they’ve found it in cannabis.

SECRET CIRCLE

Since at least the Vietnam War, veterans have been using cannabis to cope with PTSD and other service-related illnesses. But until recently, much of their activity has been a carefully guarded secret, shared only with other veterans inside the circle.

Former Marine Ryan Miller started the Harborside Heroes program at Harborside Health Center in Oakland to bring that largely private struggle into the light and expand the community of veterans using cannamedicine. 

“I’m a veteran of the Marines, ‘98 to ‘02, as a computer specialist. I’m a non-combat veteran. The first thing most people ask is, ‘Where did you go, Iraq or Afghanistan?’ And for me, it’s neither,” he said. “I have a sense of guilt — it’s like survivor’s guilt … I’ll never feel satisfied with my sense of service, and that inspires me to keep serving other veterans and dedicate my life to serving them.”

That dedication led Miller to create a group built around using cannabis to heal wounds and foster community among veterans, while providing opportunities for community service to rebuild a sense of purpose.

“When you’re wearing the uniform, you’re your parents’ favorite kid. You get the pats on the back from the Vietnam vets and everything. But when you take it off, it’s back to work,” he said. “When you do community service, you receive gestures of gratitude, and it sort of restores the sense that you’re working on behalf of your nation.”

Members of a Weed for Warriors support group before a fundraising run.

Members of a Weed for Warriors support group before a fundraising run.

Miller has worked closely with the Weed For Warriors Project, a group founded to expand awareness about medical marijuana and increase veteran access to the plant — which, for now, is expressly forbidden under the VA medical system.

A bill that would have allowed Veterans Administration doctors to even discuss medical marijuana with their patients was rejected in Congress earlier this year. Currently, the official VA stance is that since there are no studies that say cannabis helps with PTSD, the drug may make things worse.

And studies of how cannabis could help vets with PTSD have been stymied.

Former University of Arizona researcher Dr. Sue Sisley had university approval to do such a study before she was abruptly laid off in 2014. A public outcry ensued, and thanks to a $2 million grant from the state of Colorado, where the plant is fully legal, she has funding for PTSD research. But the project cannot begin until she receives the appropriate cannabis from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. NIDA is the only source of acceptable research-grade cannabis, and does not have the required strains in stock.

Meanwhile, Sisley, who gave a presentation on pot and PTSD at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in September, says she’s pushing forward with research of her own in Arizona, but medically-accepted cannabis for PTSD is still a ways off.

FREE THE PLANT

That means the vets have work to do. WFWP is currently on a cross-country tour to promote its message: neglect and overmedication of opiates by the VA, and that medicinal cannabis is an alternative.

Carillo is now the president of Meds 4 Vets, the Sacramento chapter of WFWP. He said getting the message out is just as vital as helping veterans access free or affordable cannabis.

A large part of the struggle Carillo and many returning vets share is the absence of a shared mission and the camaraderie that grows among the people who share one.

“When you’re active duty, you got your buddies in the service living with you in a hotel,” he said. “When you come home to your old neighborhood, you’re just not complete anymore. You don’t have self-worth.” 

But when he discovered the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, a group of veterans dedicated to growing quality cannabis to share with other veterans in need, Carillo realized he’d found his new mission: to “go through all those states and [let] people know that medical cannabis is an option for us.”

“I went down to Santa Cruz to donate some of my own medicine and they told me, ‘We need somebody up north,’” he said. “I came home, looked around the house, and realized I had nothing to do and everything I needed to help. So I started by doing pre-rolls and edibles.”

A medically-retired Marine competes in the Wounded Warrior Games. (Sgt. Mark Fayloga/Flickr/DVIDSHUB)

A medically-retired Marine competes in the Wounded Warrior Games. (Sgt. Mark Fayloga/Flickr/DVIDSHUB)

So Carillo founded Meds 4 Vets to serve veterans in the Sacramento area, and in 10 months, he went from handing out medicine to about 10 people to 60 or more, with more than 100 veterans involved in the program in all.

Carillo says that California’s abundance of cannabis means access isn’t as big of an issue as it is in other states, especially ones with prohibition, but getting quality medicine at an affordable price is still a major obstacle.

“That’s why I started growing in the first place, because it’s too expensive. Most of us are on fixed incomes,” he said. “There’s plenty of stuff available, but is it what works? Consistent supply is still an issue, unlike the pharmacy where they’ve always got 30,000 Xanax on deck.”

Carillo’s concerns about the cost of cannabis for veterans were echoed by Miller, who said while many dispensaries, including Harborside, provide discounts to veterans, more needs to be done to get vets in touch with groups like WFWP.

But right now the biggest obstacle to veteran access is the VA itself. 

As with many pain clinics, the VA’s care providers are under increasing pressure to monitor their patients’ use of opiate painkillers. 

That means drug tests. And, in a twist, if those tests meant to stymie opiate use come up positive for cannabis, access to the painkillers is lost.

“It’s all patient to doctor,” Carillo said. “Some VA doctors are letting cannabis use slide, but saying, ‘Don’t even tell my nurses.’ Then again, other guys are saying, ‘They yanked all my opiates and pills I need to survive.’ It all depends.”

Featured Photo by Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr