By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Mike Wereschagin, Brad Bumsted, and Sam Janesch of The Caucus
In this May 26, 2018 photo, 'Plants Over Pills' demonstrators pause at the front door of the Veterans Administration in Washington, demanding access to medical marijuana, which they believe can mitigate the debilitating effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury. Military veterans lobbying for an end to federal classification of marijuana as a lethal substance with no redeeming medicinal value may be closer to that goal than ever before, given the midterm election results. Between the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and a federal lawsuit led by a 12-year-old girl with epilepsy, the cannabis prohibition drama is set to unfold on multiple fronts. (David Dickerson/Sarasota Herald-Tribune via AP)
Erik Asher likes to show others how to get the most out of their marijuana.
The Army veteran, 52, who suffers from myriad ailments related to his military service, sits at his dining room table, converting “cannabis flower” into a potent, sticky, yellowish rosin. Asher maintains it’s the best way he knows of getting the most out of the cannabis he purchases from legal medical cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania with his VA disability benefits.
He’s replicated his technique for friends and others also hoping to stretch their supply. He disseminates these lessons beyond this circle through explainer videos posted to YouTube.
“I’m trying to show people how to take their medicine and get the most out of it,” he said, while converting his cannabis flower into rosin using a hot press reminiscent of a vice that’s hand-cranked to squeeze cannabis while heating it.
Even though the federal government deems marijuana an illegal drug, new state laws have allowed millions of veterans like Asher throughout Postindustrial America to turn to the plant used for millennia to alleviate pain, reduce anxiety, and treat other disorders that they say prescription medicine didn’t relieve, and in fact led to addiction in some cases. There’s a growing community of former service members and others who say they find relief, support, and education in working with each other.
Several states in Postindustrial America allow cannabis use for medical reasons. Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York have legalized cannabis for medical use. Michigan and Illinois have OK’d recreational cannabis consumption. The other Postindustrial states — Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama — continue to criminalize cannabis to varying degrees.
There’s also mounting pressure on the Department of Veterans Affairs to broaden vets’ access to cannabis.
A Department of Veterans Affairs memo released earlier this year states that it’s developing a research program “to examine the potential for medical marijuana and cannabinoids to treat disorders and diseases prevalent in our veteran population.”
The VA is apparently focusing much of its examination of the use of cannabis in treating PTSD.
Veteran Erik Asher of the Pittsburgh area helps teach people how to extract rosin from cannabis, so they make their own medicine. Medical cannabis is legal in Pennsylvania. (photograph provided by Erik Asher)
Meanwhile, Asher is among those grateful for having discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis — and for living in a state that allows its use — following a military career that left him physically and emotionally hobbled.
He was stationed in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The following year, he was deployed to Saudi Arabia in the lead-up to the Gulf War in Iraq. During the subsequent months of his deployment, he bore firsthand witness to the fighting, death, and destruction.
“I kind of ‘Forrest Gumped’ my way through my military career,” said Asher from his modest apartment just outside of Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife. “I got a front-row seat to all of this historic shit.”
Among the horrors dominating the headlines at the time were the slaughter of thousands of Kuwaitis at the hands of Iraqi forces commanded by then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Asher was among those tasked with helping to identify — and in some grim cases, reassemble — bodies dismembered in explosions and other horrors of war.
While cleaning up Kuwait City, “we had to help with the identification of victims … if you could piece them together,” he recalled, his voice somber and deadpan, as if he were trying to suppress the continued pain those memories cause.
His PTSD — coupled with respiratory difficulties and ailments he incurred while serving his country — garnered Asher disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, though not before enduring numerous struggles including homelessness and a suicide attempt.
He sought help from the VA, which put Asher on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals for a variety of physical and psychological ailments including arthritic pain, autoimmune difficulties, chronic fatigue, and depression.
“The VA was giving me medications for all of that, but it made me a zombie,” he said. “I couldn’t interact with my kid or my wife.”
Once he discovered cannabis, Asher said, he was able to stop using the medications prescribed by the VA. These days, the only medication other than cannabis he uses is to treat a thyroid condition, he said.
And those dark thoughts that once prompted him to try taking his own life are well under control.
“If veterans had had widespread access to it (cannabis), you have a lot less of them taking their own lives,” he said.
Growing hemp as medicine
Some other veterans like Asher agree and proselytize the restorative properties of cannabis use.
Sarah Stenuf is among them.
Senuf suffered from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while training for deployment stateside and while serving in Afghanistan. She said she started having seizures after her TBI, for which the military prescribed medication.
But once in Afghanistan, the medicine she needed to control her seizures wasn’t always available amid the war. Stenuf said that while she was unmedicated, the seizures started again.
“I was shaking, having tics, seizures, it was hell,” she recalled of her 2011 deployment in Afghanistan.
At one point, Stenuf said, military physicians had her on 16 different medications, and she was taking 10 to 30 pills a day.
Once back from Afghanistan, she said, her life began to unravel.
“I got really intro drinking, really into drugs, attempted suicide twice … it turned into this spiral where I was crashing like crazy,” she said, recalling this dark period of her life.
After leaving the military, Stenuf found some semblance of solace on the 60-acre farm outside of Syracuse, N.Y., where she grows hemp for CBD production, as well as fruits and vegetables, continuing a family legacy, several generations in the making, of working the land.
Hemp grows on a farm outside Syracuse, N.Y. where Sarah Stenuf raises the plants for CBD production. (photograph provided by Sarah Stenuf)
She also started using cannabis medicinally, crediting it, in combination with other behavioral modifications, for her no longer relying on prescribed medications to control her seizures.
“Now I don’t take any pills,” she said. “I use cannabis and alternative therapies, yoga, meditation.”
She is a staunch advocate of cannabis use for treating both physical and psychological ailments, but stressed the need for would-be users to do the research needed to find the right product to address what ails them.
“I would say just do your due diligence — do your research, learn what are the pros and cons on how it will benefit you and your family,” she said.
“And if you find that it does work for you, start low, go slow, get quality products because there is so much crap out there.”
Stenuf said that while cannabis has certainly helped her, its properties are medicinal, not magical.
“Nothing is going to solve all your problems,” she said in a raspy voice that conveys her brusque, no-nonsense outlook on life. “If you want that change, you’ve got to put in the fucking work.”
“The DOD has failed us”
Todd Scantini also proselytizes about the benefits of cannabis for treating TBI and other maladies.
A West Point graduate who served for decades, Scantini advocates for making medical cannabis more accessible to veterans, and non-veterans, who are in pain.
“Cannabis has the potential to be a revolutionary medicine."
These days, Scantini is the CEO of Harvest 360, a firm that consults for the legal cannabis, hemp, and associated industries.
“Cannabis has the potential to be a revolutionary medicine,” he said. “It’s our oldest medicine and it has the potential to be the medicine of the future.”
He said the VA and the Department of Defense need to be at the forefront of research examining the ways in which medical cannabis can help those who served their country.
“The DOD has failed us,” he said, noting that when military officials are asked about the potential role of cannabis in veteran medicine, they blame the FDA and Justice Department for not allowing the Pentagon to work with a drug deemed illegal on the federal level.
“I think the VA has the ability (with cannabis) to do something huge,” he opined. “Our nation is in crisis like our veteran community is in crisis,” he added, noting the ways in which cannabis has already been used by those suffering from depression, opioid addiction and other maladies.
Besides the active ingredients in cannabis that ease physical pain and psychological woes, Scantini noted that the ritual of use plays a significant role in its benefits as well, in ways that other medications — or adverse self-medicating like binge drinking -— simply can’t.
“When I’m with a group of veterans, and we can share cannabis together, I feel like we are able to have deeper, more meaningful conversation than whether we passed a bottle of Jack Daniel’s around.”
Illinois group pushes for alternatives
The growing ranks of veterans searching for alternatives to pharmaceutical solutions for what ails them is what inspired the creation of groups like Operation 1620, aka “The Cannabis Veterans,” by Caleb Masoner, a veteran residing in the northern suburbs of Chicago.
What started as a Facebook group quickly evolved into a nonprofit with nearly 1,100 members. Its mission is to help veterans find safe, alternative relief to the chronic pain that plagues so many of them, including Masoner.
In April 2015, he was medically discharged from the military for degenerative disc disease, which required two of his vertebrae to be surgically fused together, and PTSD. He attributes his back problems to the hulking, ergonomically-incorrect body armor servicemembers wear — which, along with a weapon, ammunition and other items carried, can weigh more than 100 pounds.
“I was not expecting that (back problems) because I’m a pretty big dude,” he said. “But when you mess around with nerve damage it can really hamper you.”
His continued pain and search for safe, healthy ways to alleviate it led Caleb to create the group in 2017. And while his day job is as a senior business analyst for another nonprofit in Chicago, his free time is spent helping other veterans find similar help, a sense of belonging that so many miss when they take off the uniform, and the right strains of cannabis to treat their respective conditions.
“Education is always a top priority for our meetups and making sure someone has someone to talk to and don’t feel so alone and have that sense of comradery back,” he said.
The lessons Operation 1620 shares with others are ones that Masoner said he wished he’d known of years earlier when the VA was prescribing him medications for his pain that he said “made me feel worse.”
While many military veteran cannabis users are quick to criticize the VA for not embracing its use, Masoner noted that these days, the VA “seems to be a little more open to cannabis.”
So VA facilities around the country promote “alternative” therapies for pain and mental anguish including yoga and other Eastern practices, but stop short of recommending cannabis use.
“They don’t recommend it — they simply educate veterans about it,” he said, opining that the VA’s seeming softening on cannabis use is moving toward one day, hopefully, getting wise to the ways in which the plant can help reduce veterans’ suffering.
Postindustrial founder Carmen Gentile has worked for some of the world’s leading publications and news outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, CBS News and others. His book, “Blindsided by the Taliban,” documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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