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Legal Or Not, Pot Eases Decorated Vet's Pains

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The smell smacked me as soon as I crossed the doorway into Russell "Sarge"
Lintecum's Tempe home. It was the sweet and pungent aroma of pot. Lintecum
had just finished what he terms a self-medication session. The decorated
Vietnam War veteran suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has
prescribed himself marijuana "as needed."

At first, he was surprised the aroma still lingered. Maybe it was the
incense stick he had burning instead. I smelled the burnt sage. No, that
wasn't it. The 57-year-old Lintecum laughed like a teenager who had been

Lintecum earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam. He is now a blues musician and
poet, drawing on his war experiences. He is listed on the roster of the
Arizona Commission on the Arts. He does residencies in elementary schools.
He also breaks the law nearly every day by smoking marijuana.

If not for the smell, I wouldn't have known Lintecum just used pot. He
wasn't baked, didn't show any signs of refer madness. He even talked about
the jeopardy a story and photo about his marijuana usage could bring him. He
withstood machine-gun fire from enemy soldiers during the war and said he
could take any political or judicial heat.

Lintecum had tried several medications over the years, all prescribed by
doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs. They left him feeling like a
zombie. He found that the marijuana he started smoking recreationally in
Vietnam worked best to mask his pain, if taken in small doses.

His method doesn't make him popular with most users. "I'll take one to three
tokes at a time and I put it out between each one," he said. "That's real
annoying to pot smokers. They don't like that at all."

I told him some people might be skeptical that he's using marijuana as
medicine. "I hope they see it as medicine. They think what Rush Limbaugh
takes is medicine."

Limbaugh, the nationally syndicated radio personality, admitted on the air
that he was addicted to prescription pain medication and was checking
himself into a rehabilitation clinic. Limbaugh didn't specify what drug he
was addicted to, but several news organizations reported it was OxyContin, a
highly addictive form of morphine.

Both drugs - OxyContin and marijuana - are effective at masking pain. Both
can be habit-forming. Both can be abused.

However, one has the blessing of the government. The other doesn't.

One makes profits for a major pharmaceutical company. The other can be grown
at home.

The Food and Drug Administration gave approval to OxyContin, even though the
Drug Enforcement Association expressed concern about its potential for

In testimony before a congressional committee two years ago, the director of
the DEA, Asa Hutchinson, likened the company that makes OxyContin to a
pusher. Hutchinson warned of "aggressive marketing and promotion" used to
get doctors to dispense the highly addictive drug to patients.

OxyContin was supposed to be a last-resort painkiller, given to, say,
late-stage cancer patients. Instead, Hutchinson testified, the company tried
to persuade doctors to substitute OxyContin for other less-addictive drugs.
The sales technique worked. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, reported
that OxyContin sales topped $1 billion in 2000.

The government doesn't recognize any medicinal purpose for marijuana. But
the people of Arizona have. Twice.

Those voter-approved initiatives on medical marijuana don't help Lintecum
much. The law requires users to carry a prescription from a doctor. And
doctors in Arizona won't write one because doing so violates federal law.
Lintecum could still be carted off to jail for the small amount he possess.
"I'm just a common criminal," he said.

I asked him if he could show me where he keeps his stash. I told him it
would make a better story if it's stored somewhere near his Purple Heart.

"No, it's right here," he said. He pulled out a wooden box with a glossy
finish and a small silver clasp. Inside were some film canisters, a small
pair of scissors and some plastic bags. No medals inside.

But, he said, back in his recreational marijuana days he had his roach clip
hanging off his Purple Heart. "You can use that," he said.

Lintecum received his Purple Heart for getting shot in the right knee during
his first tour of duty in Vietnam. He volunteered for two more tours, just
as he volunteered to join the Army in the first place.

Lintecum dropped out of high school to sign up. "Every night, it's on TV,"
he said, "I felt like they needed me and I wanted to help my coun- try."

Lintecum entered the military a fresh-faced teenager, full of rah-rah
patriotism. Thinking about his appearance now, he said, "I wouldn't have
liked me very much at all." Lintecum's face is still youthful. But it is
hidden behind a bushy frame of white hair, almost as if he's wearing it as a
costume. His mustache covers most of his upper lip. His beard ends in wisps
around the middle of his chest.

Lintecum's post-traumatic stress syndrome went undiagnosed for several
years. Looking back, he said it manifested itself in bar fights and other
acts of aggression. He was homeless, and sometimes he'd stay up all night as
if on guard duty.

"Coming home was a nightmare, because all I wanted was to feel at home and
that it was over and that I was alive." He paused and tried to let out a
chuckle, but it came out like a cry. "Never got that." He looked out his
window. It's been 35 years. He's performed before cheering crowds alongside
some of his musical idols. He's parlayed music and poetry into a comfortable
living. He's met grateful veterans. But the hurt was still fresh. He took
off his glasses and wiped his eyes.

The marijuana only masks the memories, much like Limbaugh's pills only
masked his back pain. Lintecum still hasn't dealt with much of his
experiences. "It's a big blur," he said.

He reaches for a medallion that's on a shelf above the desk where he keeps
his stash. It's a bronze star on a red background. It's from a North
Vietnamese soldier's cap. "I don't know how I got this. It scares me," he

Doctors, with the blessing of the federal government, are testing a drug
that might help post-traumatic stress disorder patients unlock memories in
therapy sessions, dealing with the problem, rather than just suppressing it.
The drug being tested is Ecstasy.

Lintecum, leaning on his cane, walked me outside and showed me his new red
Cadillac. It's a gift he bought himself after starting a new enterprise.

Users of certain cellphones can now download Lintecum's voice screaming
"incoming" when they get a call. Lintecum can't believe how popular it is

The license plate on the new car reads "3 Tours."

The tears were gone. Lintecum seemed happy. Although I figured that after
walking through his Vietnam memories with me, he would probably need to
medicate himself again.

I got in my car and turned on the radio. The baseball game had already
started, brought to me by something called Prilosec. It had been a long day.
A beer sounded good.

Pubdate: Mon, 20 Oct 2003
Source: Arizona Republic (AZ)
Copyright: 2003 The Arizona Republic
Contact: opinions@arizonarepublic.com
Website: http://www.arizonarepublic.com/