Medical Marijuana And The Iraq Veteran
by Colby Buzzell, Esquire Magazine
Can medical marijuana help returning soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan war deal with post-traumatic stress disorder?
This question — that it might, that it might not, or that it might even make it worse — hadn’t even occurred to me until recently, when I was on the phone with the receptionist at a local medical-marijuana clinic trying to line up an appointment with a doctor in high hopes of obtaining a California medical-marijuana ID card so that I could purchase some cannabis as “medication.”
I’m what you might call a recreational drug user, as well as an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran and a card-carrying member of the VFW. To be honest, the real reason I was looking to score a coveted medical-marijuana card was because I had plans that night to go and watch Zodiac at the Los Feliz theater here in Los Angeles. I read the book years ago, thoroughly enjoyed it, and wanted to see the movie adaptation while under the influence of a narcotic, which at that moment I didn’t have.
The idea to obtain a medical-marijuana card came after I clicked on a link that was posted on the Drudge Report that morning, “Calif. high school students ‘openly smoking medical marijuana in class’…”
The article essentially said that some high school students down in San Diego armed with medical-marijuana cards were coming to class baked, thinking that these cards might help them get away with it. Hysterically brilliant yet insanely retarded way of thinking. But this got me thinking that if high school kids can easily obtain these cards, then I could, too. Right?
After skimming over the article, I went and did some research online. It seems that thanks to the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Prop. 215), I, being a California resident, now had “the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes where that medical use is deemed appropriate and has been recommended by a physician who has determined that the person’s health would benefit from the use of marijuana.”
The girl on the phone told me I needed three, actually four, things to get started. Most importantly, I needed an ailment. I told her I was back from the war and had PTSD. While I was researching medical marijuana online I came to discover that a lot of the things people say medical MJ can cure are disorders associated with PTSD. Some doctors are saying that pot is the best treatment for PTSD, because it provides for the restoration of the sleep cycle, unlike other drugs that disrupt sleep. I even heard that some soldiers at Walter Reed were smoking dope. I asked if I could see somebody today, and she said sure, but I needed to have a California ID card, money to cover the consultation fee ($150), and a copy of my medical records. I didn’t have my medical records — the VA hospital currently possessed them. She told me that by law they have to give me a copy of my medical records and that obtaining them from the VA hospital is easy. Really?! How the hell did she know this? “Do a lot of veterans seek medical marijuana?” I asked.
“All the time,” she told me. I told her I’d call her right back.
I immediately called the VA hospital to see if I could possibly obtain my medical records that day because I needed the weed that night. Of course I was immediately placed on hold. While patiently waiting, I listened to the Muzak and various voice-over messages: “The VA can provide free medical care for two years from your discharge from active duty for conditions possibly related to your service, regardless of your income status. Please contact the enrollment-and-eligibility office at a VA health-care facility near you or call…The VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System is here to serve you….A VA representative will be with you momentarily….We’re proud to serve our country’s veterans, because we know that the price of freedom is not free. Thank you for making the VA your provider of choice.”
After waiting on hold for what seemed like forever, I finally hung up. My watch told me that I was on hold for twenty minutes. I debated for a split second whether or not to physically go down there. I’ve found that you can die just from the waiting that they make you do there, and all kidding aside, you can get terrifying PTSD just by walking into a VA facility trying to get tested and/or treatment for PTSD: depression, flashbacks, nightmares, rapid heart rate, irritability, outbursts of anger, emotional numbness, thoughts of suicide — all symptoms I feel whenever I go there. So instead of reliving that traumatic experience, I went back to sifting through the multiple medical-marijuana ads printed in the LA Weekly. I figured that maybe there was another doctor in this damned town who could help me out without having my medical records, right?
It didn’t take me long to find one.
The first thing I noticed about his office was the skateboard, which struck me as being out of place for Beverly Hills — old-school pool-model deck, Indy trucks, and Powell Bomber wheels — pretty much the exact same setup that I skate on, or used to.
He was wearing a floaty white linen tunic shirt with subtle embroidery around the neck, designer jeans, and wavy So-Cal blond hair. Supermellow, talking to me the entire time in a voice just above a whisper, which made me wonder if he spoke that way all the time, or if he did that because he didn’t want people next door hearing what he was saying.
After I took a seat on the leather chair, I asked him if he skated. He told me he did, but with a smile said mostly he loved to surf. He asked if I skated and I told him that I did, but not nearly as much as I used to. I skate mostly as transportation now, liquor store and back, reason being the prolonged bending of the knees now sometimes creates a large amount of stress and pain afterward, sometimes so great that I have a hard time falling asleep at night. I’ve been skating off and on since the fifth grade, and in high school I participated in sports, which over time probably added a lot more wear and tear to my knees. Sometimes they’d go out on me. I had these issues when I enlisted in the Army, but I kept them hush-hush because I didn’t want to be kicked out. In the Army, it was easy to obtain Vicodin, codeine, Percocet, you name it, from others in the barracks and wash them down with a beer or two for the pain whenever the issue came up no problem. But since being discharged, I have no way of obtaining pills. So I told the doctor I was interested in turning to alternative medicines.
The whole time I was yapping about all this, he was taking scribble notes with a black pen on a plain white piece of paper. I then told him about the time I went down to the VA to get my head checked out for PTSD.
It wasn’t till my wife and I moved back to the 213 that I came to find out that I was possibly wired differently now. One of the reasons why I wanted to move back to Los Angeles was because of an article I came across on the protesting that was going on all across the country on the anniversary of the war. The article listed estimates of how many people showed up to each protest in each major city. L. A. was somewhere near the bottom, and when I saw that, I thought to myself, That’s where I want to live. Not because the antiwar crowd bothers me, but because I wanted to distance myself from the war as much as possible, and what better way to do that than to live in a city full of narcissists?
I didn’t want to see any yellow ribbons, shake hands with strangers thanking me for my service, and I didn’t want to view any antiwar slogans like “No More Racist War for Oil!” or sit in a restaurant next to a table of rich NYU kids hearing them regurgitate to each other whatever antiwar rhetoric their draft-dodging professors told them that day.
While apartment hunting, I was living by myself at a month-to-month cold-water efficiency near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western. I was having difficulty landing a place because most landlords could give two shits if you were in the Army. All they cared about was what job you presently had, how much you made now, and if you could pay the rent. (Saying “Aspiring writer” also didn’t help my situation too much since all they would hear instead was “Unemployed.”)
While on a business trip, my friend Gabe came down to visit me, and as we were leaving the building so I could give him a ride back to his hotel in Irvine, he asked if the neighborhood I lived in now was bad. I looked at him and said, “After Iraq, what’s a bad neighborhood?”
Immediately after I told him this, fireworks went off a close distance from where we were both standing. They were sporadic, as was the screaming that came from that same direction.
“Are those gunshots?” Gabe asked curiously, as I thought to myself, No way, that’s geographically impossible, we’re here in the United States, that shit only happens in the movies, like for example Boyz N the Hood. Just then I heard a ricochet bullet whir close by, and my brain registered that yes, holy shit, those were gunshots being fired, probably a 9mm.
Instinctively, I took a knee behind a car for cover and scanned over to the location where they were coming from as my friend ran down the street totally wide open like an open target as the shooting continued.
“Get down!” I yelled. “Get the fuck down!”
An image ran through my head of Sergeant Horrocks tackling a private who didn’t take cover when we were under assault in Mosul.
When the shooting subsided, I got up, ran to the car, told Gabe to get in, and we drove in the direction the shooting was coming from.
“Are you nuts?!”
“No. I just want to see what happened.”
When we drove to the location the shots were fired from, a low-rent apartment complex, we saw several youths standing around in a panic, and in the middle of all that a half-lifeless individual wearing a Hanes wifebeater completely soaked in red blood sprawled out on the front lawn faceup, and a young girl standing next to him with tears running down her face hysterically screaming, “Why?!”
On the freeway down to Irvine, I explained to my friend that whenever you hear shooting, not to run, but instead get down and seek cover. He then asked me why I didn’t get out of the car to help when we drove past the scene.
“I don’t know,” I told him as the car radio was softly playing some song I’d never heard before. “I was never really trained to do that.”
After dropping him off and parking my car near where I lived, I walked back to my building; the whole block was taped off with a dozen-plus black-and-white police cars parked all around it. Instead of going straight up to my room, I stopped by the liquor store on the corner first to pick up a twelve-pack. I do this every night. Then I walked up to a police officer and asked him about casualties.
One dead, two in critical condition.
For the amount of shots fired at that close range, I analyzed that the gunman had pathetic aim. After thanking the po-po for the intel, I carried my twelve-pack silently up to my room, cracked the window open, lit up a smoke, and drank while listening to the police helicopter flying up above.
Many nights in L. A., I would wake up when I heard the ghetto bird circle up above the building, with its spotlight sometimes beaming down through the lone window in my room. In Iraq, Kiowa attack helicopters would fly above us constantly on combat missions, and I loved that sound.
For a year straight after I came back, I hardly ever left my room, and the only walking that I did was to the liquor store and back to numb myself in my room. I found that I was no longer interested in going out. Nothing interested me, not even butterfly collecting, and I found myself not interested in meeting or talking to new people, either. Why should I? I had already met a lot of the best people you will ever meet, in the military.
When a friend of mine from the Army who I still keep in touch with told me that the days now went on and on and every day felt like being placed on QRF and waiting for something to happen, I told him I felt the exact same way.
Quick Reaction Force means you sit around all day, sometimes for several days, and wait for an attack and/or a mission to happen.
After some encouragement from this friend, I decided to go to the VA. He told me that you have to go through a lot of bullshit, but once you do, it’s worth it, especially if the Army called you back up to active duty. Rumor is PTSD can get you out of redeployment.
At the VA, the physician who does the initial screening for PTSD asked: “In your life, have you ever had any experience that was so frightening, horrible, or upsetting that in the past month, you…”
Followed by four questions:
1. Have had nightmares about it or thought about it when you did not want to?
2. Tried hard not to think about it or went out of your way to avoid situations that reminded you of it?
3. Were constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled?
4. Felt numb or detached from others, activities, or your surroundings?
After I truthfully answered yes to all four questions, the doctor at the VA told me that if I answered yes to just three out of the four, I would screen positive for PTSD.
What is PTSD? The VA Web site defines it:
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of a traumatic event. A traumatic event is a life-threatening event such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood. Most survivors of trauma return to normal given a little time. However, some people will have stress reactions that do not go away on their own, or may even get worse over time. These individuals may develop PTSD.
People with PTSD experience three different kinds of symptoms. The first set of symptoms involves reliving the trauma in some way such as becoming upset when confronted with a traumatic reminder or thinking about the trauma when you are trying to do something else. The second set of symptoms involves either staying away from places or people that remind you of the trauma, isolating from other people, or feeling numb. The third set of symptoms includes things such as feeling on guard, irritable, or startling easily.
In addition to the symptoms described above, we now know that there are clear biological changes that are associated with PTSD. PTSD is complicated by the fact that people with PTSD often may develop additional disorders such as depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. These problems may lead to impairment of the person’s ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems, and family problems.
When I clicked on the link on their Web site for more information on treatment, it of course, no surprise, directed me to a page that read “Page Not Found.”
I told this doctor in Beverly Hills all about the initial screening at the VA, as well as why I never followed up on it. Weeks after visiting the VA, I finally received a phone call back to set up an appointment with a counselor there, but by then I’d lost all interest in the matter, and never called them back. I had had a realization while I was seated in the waiting room, which looked like a casting call for Born on the Fourth of July, with dozens of sullen veterans, a lot of whom were missing limbs and confined to wheelchairs, several proudly wearing ball caps that read WWII VETERAN or VIETNAM VETERAN. I sat there with all my limbs intact, looked around, and realized in comparison I had absolutely nothing to bitch about. I thought no matter what horrific things I did or saw, it probably paled in comparison to these guys, you could see it in their eyes. I was lucky. My platoon wasn’t wiped out. I wasn’t living under a bridge in Santa Monica. Once I realized this, I walked out the door.
He then asked if I was suicidal, I told him no, though at times I do find myself thinking about how life feels a bit pointless now, and he asked how often I drank and how much, and after I told him, he suggested that it’d be a good idea for me to cut back a little bit on my nightly consumption. Mentioned something about permanent liver damage. After taking more notes, he handed me a piece of paper with my full name printed on the first line.
The above-named patient and I have discussed the use of medical cannabis during the course of a medical history and physical examination following guidelines of the Medical Board of California.
I believe cannabis is a medically appropriate treatment for this patient. I am a consulting physician for the patient, who has demonstrated a legitimate medical need for cannabis. My patient understands the risks and benefits associated with this treatment and that alternative treatments may be available.
The patient has been advised that California Proposition 215 notwithstanding, the cultivation, possession, and use of cannabis, even for medical purposes, is still illegal under Federal law at this time.
Approval Period: 12 (twelve) months
Other Instructions: Recommended va-porizer/edibles
At the bottom, he signed and dated it. Awesome. I didn’t even have my meds yet, and I was already beginning to feel a whole heck of a lot better. Using his Mac laptop Web cam, the doctor took a quick snapshot of me sitting in his office and printed out the card and handed it to me. He said something about how the medical-marijuana card now allowed me to legally purchase cannabis, but to use discretion and also keep in mind that it was not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, which meant I could still get busted if I was not careful. For example, don’t smoke weed in your car, especially around the locations where they sell medical MJ, because the cops will bust you immediately.
When I told him that I was more interested in consuming the medication orally via edibles, like brownies, he told me to be extremely careful. He had a client who ate a whole brownie in one sitting, and she was out of it for three whole days, had hallucinations and everything. He suggested I only eat a small bit at a time.
With my new card and letter of recommendation in hand from the doctor, I thanked him for his help with a personal check paid to the amount of $175. As I was leaving his office, he tensed up and requested that I be a bit incognito on the way out with that piece of paper with his signature on it. He asked for it back, and then folded it up for me like a burrito and covered it with a blank piece of paper, handed it back, and kindly said to call him whenever I had any questions.
I walked past two menacing security guards, both looking a bit bored standing by the main entrance of the “Farmacy,” which, once inside, felt nothing like any pharmacy I’d ever been in before, not even in Amsterdam. It was more like a head shop on Telegraph Avenue, with a dash of a festive co-op nonprofit-dot-org vibe.
I took a seat inside by the front desk and told the earthy girl sitting behind it that it was my first time. I had to be registered in their system. I handed her my medical card, driver’s license, and doctor’s note. She was kinda hot, in that Charlie Manson Girl kind of way, and while filling out and signing a waiver that pretty much requested I don’t medicate in or around their facility, she typed some info into the computer and said all that was left was a phone call to the doctor to confirm. She called, gave his office my name, and just like that I was in their system, ready to go.
Once in the back, which of course, was papered with various portraits and photographs of Bob Marley, I was greeted by my own personal salesperson, a thirty-something with round Lennon glasses and hair down to his shoulders. Advertised up on a chalkboard was today’s staff pick and the special of the day. Behind glass display counters was a buffet of various glass medical cookie jars filled with nuggets of green bud of various breeds, as well as a wide array of pot brownies, pot cookies, pot cupcakes, pot soda, pot butter, pot ice cream, pot lasagna, pot potpie, and pot chocolate bars in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and potency.
It was hard for me to concentrate as I eyed the inventory, partly due to the two mariachis in the corner playing live music, one playing an acoustic guitar, the other sitting down on a stool playing an accordion.
I purchased a bunch of edibles, which my salesperson placed in a white paper bag and stapled shut for me. I shoved them into my backpack. Since it was my first time, I received a free sample — a red lollipop that came equipped with a sticker on the packaging that read, “This product contains medical cannabis for 215 patients only. Not for resale.” And “Keep out of reach of small children. Caution while driving or operating machinery.”
On leaving the Farmacy, I stuck the lollipop in my mouth and rode my Vespa all the way back to the pad, paranoid the entire time that a suspecting black-and-white LAPD cab might pull me over for whatever reason. I can just see the link right now on Drudge:
“Iraq-war veteran arrested in Hollywood with several pounds of medical-marijuana brownies…tells judge marijuana was to treat his PTSD….”
There’s a reason why I no longer drive a car and now own a Vespa scooter, and it’s not because I’ve watched Quadrophenia one too many times. I tell people that it’s because I save money on gas, sixty to eighty miles per gallon, which, in a way, is my middle finger to the oil industry. The other reason, which I don’t tell anybody, is that I’d probably be in jail right now if I continued to drive a car in Los Angeles.
Twice I exited my vehicle to engage in violence on some busy street because of some idiot driving like shit here in L. A. Would I have done this before experiencing a year in Iraq? Hard to say, but thoughts of violence only went through my head when these individuals decided to give me the finger.
When that happens, what I’m seeing is some guy who could give two shits. While I was over there, he was here, and not only that, he’s in a polished luxury sedan, making over $100K, no cares in the world, hair styled, cell phone to the ear, doesn’t have to worry about the Army calling him back up to active duty, or a phone call from a friend from the old platoon saying, “Hey, did you hear? Such and such just got killed.” And now this douchebag is going to flip me off? When he’s the one driving like the complete asshole?
With a scooter, I don’t get anxiety when stuck in traffic, I can just maneuver and weave my way in and out of it no problem and park my shit wherever I want. It’s a lot less stressful. I made it home without incident and spent the entire weekend heavily medicated. Since nobody told me how much or how little to use when medicating, I had to just figure it out myself.
At the time, I was married and living in a loft apartment in downtown L. A. The reason why we moved into a loft apartment was mainly because there are only four walls in a warehouse loft — so I couldn’t close the door and hole myself up in my room like I did all day and all night at the last place we lived. I’d be forced to be in the same room with my wife. But what happened instead was I just put up invisible walls all around me.
When she got home from work, after dropping her purse off on the counter and some small talk about how the day was, she opened up the fridge, saw the meds in there, and asked, “What’s all this?”
I had changed my mind about going out and seeing Zodiac, so my ass was on the sofa and Apocalypse Now was on the flat screen, and I said, “Oh yeah, I went out today and got a medical-marijuana card.”
She was confused. “How the hell did you get one of those?”
“I have PTSD,” I said, taking another bite from a brownie.
“What?! Are you serious?!”
“But you don’t have PTSD?”
I liked the marijuana a lot because it helped me sleep, and if I could sleep all night and all day I would, and I slept all that weekend, probably the best sleep I’d had since the war, and on Monday I felt like a new person.
“I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said ‘yes’ to a divorce. When I was here, I wanted to be there….” — Apocalypse Now
My wife was the love of my life, the girl I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but when I came back from Iraq, she was now a complete stranger to me, as I was to her. I couldn’t relate to her, and she couldn’t to me. So I don’t blame her at all for not wanting anything to do with me anymore. Hell, at times I don’t want anything to do with myself either.
But whatever, I left L. A. for San Francisco, and a couple months later, when Todd Vance, a friend of mine from my old platoon, called me up to see how I was doing, I told him about the divorce. In shock he exclaimed, “No way!” Not because he was surprised that I was divorced now but because this meant that almost every single one of us who was married now wasn’t.
When I told Vance about the new line of medication that I was on, at first he chuckled at me, but later on he called me back to tell me that he’s been thinking about MJ, as well as about an advertisement he saw in the back of the weekly paper that was targeting veterans.
I got in contact with the marketing director for MediCann, who came up with the ad campaign, and in an e-mail exchange she told me that “a high percentage of our veteran patients have the diagnosis of PTSD. The most popular effect is that marijuana stops the night terrors or flashbacks associated with PTSD. Patients with this diagnosis typically use marijuana at night to help get to sleep and stay asleep without being woken up by their nightmares.”
I wore a Mini Combat Infantry Badge lapel pin the day I decided to go back to the VA to go through with my testing. At the VA hospital in Los Angeles, I asked to see somebody for help with PTSD. The lady wrote down a name and phone number for me to call, and I politely told her that I wasn’t going to go through that hell again, and that I wanted to see somebody that day. An individual then walked me to an office that had a paper note taped on its door that read, OUT TILL MONDAY, then he walked me over to another door that read OUT TO A MEETING. He then handed me a map of the hospital and told me to go to a separate building across the way. Once at the building, I was told to go to yet another building, and at that building, after signing in and taking an elevator up to the second floor, a guy there then told me to go back down and go to yet another building next door. I was getting PTSD all over again, and right about the time I was about to say fuck this and head down to the nearest medical-marijuana facility so I could restock and medicate myself into a coma, I decided to keep on going, and I walked into the cuckoo’s nest of the mental-health ward. I told the lady behind the counter that I was told to come here to see somebody for PTSD, and she asked for my name and some basic info, and then she asked where I slept last night, and I told her the truth: “Believe it or not, I slept in my rental car.”
I had driven down the previous night from San Francisco, leaving late at night down the Highway 5, and whenever I got tired I pulled off the freeway into the rest stops, and I’d sleep for a couple hours until I awoke, then I’d drive again until I couldn’t. She gestured for me to take a seat. I thanked her and glanced at my Swatch to see what time it was, and with a smile she warned me not to do that, and that I was going to be waiting for a while.
There were about a dozen of us in the waiting-room lobby. One guy was mumbling to himself about something and all the others looked totally homeless and defeated. Above the television set was a red-white-and-blue sign WELCOMING VETERANS FROM OIF/OEF. I was the only one there who looked like he participated in that conflict, everybody else looked considerably older.
A guy came around with sack lunches and started handing them out to everybody. When he came to me, I told him I wasn’t hungry, and he said that I should take one anyway, if I wasn’t hungry now, I would be. Inside the brown bags were sandwiches, chips, an apple, a drink. What people couldn’t eat they handed to somebody else, the same exact way soldiers do when sitting around eating MREs. A soldier will eat what he wants and hand out what he can’t, so nothing is wasted. Across a range of combat and life experience, it was quite heartwarming to see that go on here in the mental ward.
Finally a lady came out and called my name.
After looking at my records on her computer, it showed that the VA tried several times to contact me ever since I came in almost a year ago. I told her that my patience was thin and I’d given up, but this time I was going to go through with the counseling no matter what. She asked me what my Military Occupational Specialty was in the Army. I told her 11 Bravo. Her eyes widened up a bit, and she said, “You must of saw a lot.” I didn’t say anything, and she told me about how she gets a lot of infantry guys now.
“There are two things I tell every OIF/OEF veteran not to do when they return home,” she said. “Don’t drink any alcohol or take any drugs whatsoever. Number two is to not watch the news or any movies that might remind you of the war.”
An example she gave was Black Hawk Down.
I gave the nice woman a smile.
Beside the drugs and alcohol, I was a-okay. I don’t pay attention to the news, and I actually don’t care too much for Black Hawk Down. Personally I think the flick’s a bit overrated and essentially just a stylish two-and-a-half-hour ad for the military. I knew of so many guys at basic training who enlisted because of that movie and had pipe dreams of being a Ranger or D-Boy. I’m more of a fan of the Vietnam-era Hollywood movies. Their war was a bit more rock ‘n’ roll and the soundtrack a bit cooler as well. I also pick up on the antiwar messages in those films, something unfortunately I didn’t quite register prior to enlistment.
After scheduling an appointment to see somebody about PTSD, I thanked her, and on the way out I put on my sunglasses and lit up a smoke. The sun was out, the grass looked freshly mowed, a veteran was playing his acoustic guitar on a bench, and I was now feeling a little hungry, so I decided to walk on over to the PX for a bite to eat. On my way there a vet from a previous war walked by. He had a hat on that advertised that he was a Vietnam veteran, and I could see that his eyes viewed the combat pin on my lapel and he gave me a subtle head nod and said, “Welcome home.”