Warriors rise up
Military veterans mobilize nationally for access to medicinal marijuana to relieve PTSD, pain and unseen injuries
By Billy Cox
WASHINGTON, D.C. — They are mostly young, and mostly male, dress blues and dusty camos, T-shirts and jeans, helmets, berets and baseball caps. The one behind the aviator shades, cigarette dangling loosely, could pass for a grunge-band drummer; more often, the hairstyles skew military, high-and-tight. One guy shows off a croquet mallet, another holds a puppy. That one over there is a banjo picker. Some smiles are more convincing than others.
The glossy portraits are tucked into transparent plastic sleeves and connected to each other by small metal rings. Each portrait is bordered in black. The black borders contain, in white letters, names, ages, branches of service and the dates they killed themselves. They killed themselves by gunshot, hanging, drug overdose, poison, asphyxiation — whatever suited their calculations or impulse. One took a blade to arteries on both sides of his groin and bled out.
The portraits are arranged in columns four deep and, when fully extended, they exceed the distance from home plate to first base by nearly 10 feet. First in line, far left, top row, top corner, is the 24-year-old for whom this “LCpl Janos V Lutz PTS Memorial Wall” is named. That black script lettering is bannered across the only non-portrait in the wall. It shows a blue sky punctuated by stratocumulus, Old Glory fluttering at the edge.
The Memorial Wall’s namesake is in uniform, crouching, looking relieved, hand resting atop the head of a Taliban donkey. According to his mother, he has just survived a firefight in Afghanistan.
On Jan. 12, 2013, Lutz returned to the bedroom where he grew up. On his forehead, in black magic marker, he inscribed the letters “DNR” — do not resuscitate. He spelled it out on his laptop: “I’m sorry. I am happier now.” He swallowed a fistful of prescription morphine pills. It was his third attempt; this time, it worked.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 45,000 Americans took their lives in 2016. Behaviorists are stumped over this epidemic, which has been ticking upward since 1999, because 54 percent of these fatalities had no history of mental health issues. But today, veterans are killing themselves at twice the civilian rate. And there is less confusion over that data.
In June 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs Suicide Report indicated that more than 75,000 Americans with military backgrounds became suicides from 2005-2015. At 20.6 deaths a day, that’s nearly 20,000 more than were killed during the 16 years of war in Vietnam. Of those daily tallies, 3.8 were still in uniform. Which means that over that 10-year stretch, the Pentagon lost 13,870 active duty troops to self-inflicted wounds, nearly twice the number who’ve died in combat since the 9/11 terror attacks.
For years, the VA’s daily suicide count stood at 22. It was downgraded to 20 four years ago, before its current status at 20.6. On this sweltering Memorial Day weekend, a contingent of millennial-heavy veterans assembled at Lafayette Square is loath to trust institutional pronouncements anymore. In their chants and speeches, they stick with the number 22.
The most conspicuous number today is 369 — that’s how many photos are linked together in the Lutz Memorial Wall. All but 10 are military, the rest are first responders. Divided by 22 suicides a day, the key number rounds out to about 16. In other words, this collapsible gallery of the dead embodies roughly 16 days’ worth of veterans for whom living became unbearable.
For those who’ve driven from as far away as Michigan and Florida to support this “Plants Over Pills” rally, Memorial Day weekend is just the latest chapter in a campaign to expose and crush the longest-running lie in American health care — the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with zero medicinal value.
They have pleaded with the men and women in Congress, but nothing happens. They have told them how marijuana cushions the jagged edges of flashback and affliction. They tell how the “combat cocktail” prescriptions dispensed by the VA can turn them into junkies, how it leaves them with bedroom and bathroom insecurities, how it degrades their internal organs.
So they make illegal medicinal choices that relieve anxiety and hypertension, choices that help them sleep, choices that turn them into criminals, ruin their military careers, stain their permanent records, and bar them from benefits they’ve earned for getting their bells clanged by roadside bombs half a world away. Denied options afforded civilians, active-duty veterans residing in states offering legal medical marijuana have been sentenced to second-class citizenship and pointless suffering by a discriminatory and punitive federal law.
And nothing happens. If only they had been fighting for Canada. Veterans Affairs Canada has been reimbursing its veterans for medical cannabis since 2008. Come October, our northern neighbors will make marijuana legal for everybody.
In America, when it comes to veterans and Schedule 1, redress procedures are so dysfunctional, the 14th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommends making an end run around the VA altogether and letting the National Security Council fix it.
Thus, after years of wrangling with a crashed system, the troops who’ve returned from action in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are now on the front lines of a fight they didn’t sign up for — a clash with their own government.
“Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of guys, but this isn’t just about us,” says Josh Frey, a Marine who nearly lost his right shoulder in Iraq but got busted in rank for smoking marijuana during rehab to ease the pain. “We’re doing this for all Americans.”
• • •
In terms of theater, the rebellion against Schedule 1 may lack the big-crowd numbers that previous veterans’ grievances have taken to the public square. But the drama is no less urgent.
In 1932, more than 17,000 largely jobless Depression-era veterans who served in World War I demanded immediate cash for their service certificates, which weren’t scheduled to be redeemed until 1945. The so-called “Bonus Army” was scattered by police gunfire in Washington, and one was killed. But the aging warriors got their money.
Beginning in April 1967, the first elements of what evolved into Vietnam Veterans Against the War would gather with 400,000 antiwar protesters in New York City. For the next five years, perhaps as many as 20,000 of these organized veterans applied sustained public pressure on Congress to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. The rest is history.
The latest movement, by contrast, has no single flashpoint or triggering event to propel it. It emerged in tandem with what policymakers call the Global War on Terror, slowly, spontaneously, a dawning collective realization percolating in small circles. It grew by email, phone calls and every other way that bad news travels. The way it caught up to Bradenton resident Aaron Cornelius just this year.
In 2009, while responding in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to an ambush in Baghdad, Cornelius got walloped by an improvised explosive device that ripped out a chunk of his skull the size of a tennis ball. The wound was so remarkable he had a cast replica made. With titanium mesh now filling in for the missing bone, Cornelius came home blind, never to see his family, his home, America, again. A few years later, his wife would succumb to pain-pill addiction. So Cornelius thought he knew what the bottom felt like.
But in February, the 49-year-old former staff sergeant his subordinates called “Pops” learned that he was still better off than others who escaped with more parts intact. Two of his old Army colleagues shot themselves to death on the same day. By May, three more buddies from his unit had followed suit.
Amid the commiseration and shared notes, the patterns rang loud and clear. Says Cornelius, “Their cases all involved medicine and alcohol.”
Cornelius cycled through that combination as well, and says he’s in a better place today thanks in part to a form of marijuana called CBD. Variations on this story have been playing out in cascades of statistics since America’s response to 9/11. And, like so many other survivors of those foreign adventures, Cornelius supports fellow veterans advocating solutions from an exceedingly complex plant that has been demonized for a century in the United States.
Some, like Dakota Meyer, the Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipient, leverage their hero status. In March, Meyer challenged lawmakers in his native Kentucky to show compassion for the wounded and end marijuana prohibition in the Bluegrass State.
Others, like California’s Jose Martinez, offer their own maimed bodies for public contemplation.
Advances in medicine are working miracles on battlefield casualties like never before. According to an American Legion report, the wounded-to-killed ratio in Afghanistan is 7.4 to 1, versus 1.7 to 1 in World War II and 2.6 to 1 in Vietnam. Consider, for instance, how at least five quadruple amputees have survived catastrophic injuries over the last decade. And in March, a team of 11 surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore made medical history when, over the course of 14 hours, they transplanted a donated penis and scrotum onto a veteran who got his genitals blown off in Afghanistan.
The bottom line, however, is that those who might have died a generation ago can suffer pain-management challenges that have failed to keep pace with life-saving technologies.
In 2012, a land mine near Kandahar stripped Jose Martinez of both legs and his right arm. At one point in Martinez’s recovery, the Army infantryman was ingesting up to 150 daily VA-prescribed pills for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But it was only after getting better results from rolling joints and packing bowls that Martinez managed to end his opioid addiction. In 2015, he joined two dozen other veterans who showcased their contempt for outdated formulas by dumping their prescription pills and scattering the plastic containers at the gates of the White House.
The protesters were affiliated with the Weed for Warriors Project, just one of many grassroots nonprofits sprouting like wildflowers across the nation: the Veterans Cannabis Project, the Veterans Cannabis Group, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, HeroGrown, Hoosier Veterans For Medical Cannabis, etc.
On Memorial Day weekend, more small groups converged on Washington amid this rising tide of national discontent. One was called the Live To Tell Foundation, established as a veterans peer-support group, by the mother of Janos “Johnny” Lutz.
Late last year, the VA and Janine Lutz resolved the malpractice lawsuit she filed following her son’s suicide in 2013. A paper trail indicated VA doctors twice violated their own protocols, and ignored instructions on her Marine son’s medical records, by prescribing him Klonopin for anxiety.
A benzodiazepine-family sedative assigned to the Schedules III and IV categories, Klonopin is associated with suicidal ideation and has gained notoriety for turning up in the autopsies of Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith, Hollywood producer Don Simpson, and novelist David Foster Wallace. The VA website “strongly recommends against the routine use of benzodiazepines in veterans with PTSD” based on “unproven efficacy ... and well-known risks for abuse and dependence.”
Even so, according to an American Legion White Paper released in July, more than 25 percent of veterans newly diagnosed for PTSD are being prescribed “benzos,” and the veterans organization cited a 2013 study indicating that 43 percent of military personnel who attempted suicide from 2008 to 2010 “had taken psychotropic medications.” It also warned that 16 percent of PTSD veterans are getting morphine-equivalent opioid doses alongside benzodiazepine, which “puts individuals at increased risk for overdose.” That’s what happened to Johnny Lutz.
In addition to Klonopin, during the same VA visit, the young Marine was also prescribed 90 morphine pills with a dosage increase from 45 milligrams to 75. Lutz had been trying to taper off, and another doctor had weaned his morphine dosage down to 35 milligrams.
Rather than gamble with protracted and costly litigation, his mother settled for $250,000 in October. But her boy is still gone. And as long as federal health care providers continue to dispense dangerous medications with no allowance for cannabis — an option she feels would have “100 percent” saved Johnny’s life — Lutz intends to keep calling out Schedule 1 hardliners at every turn. Until marijuana prohibition ends, she says, every veteran is at risk.
“During the hearing, they asked the doctor who gave Johnny the Klonopin ‘Are you aware they don’t prescribe benzos for PTSD?’ She said, ‘Yes, I am aware of it.’ My lawyer said, ‘But that didn’t matter, did it?’ She kept silent. This is not just ‘screwing up’ when somebody dies. As far as I’m concerned, (two) VA doctors are guilty of murder.”
• • •
On May 18, under questioning from the House Judiciary Committee, acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Robert Patterson delivered perplexing testimony. Thirty years with the agency, and Patterson was a pillar of selective knowledge.
Quizzed about what percentage of the 64,000 fatal American drug overdoses in 2016 were from nonprescription opioids, Patterson said “Fentanyl alone makes up for about 20,000.” Combinations of heroin and fentanyl, he added, accounted for the balance.
Pressed further, Patterson said he was unfamiliar with surveys from legal medical marijuana states that showed patients are using cannabis to sever their dependencies with pharmaceuticals. He was unaware of a 2017 study by the National Academy of Sciences affirming that marijuana products do, in fact, mitigate chronic pain.
Asked how many Americans had suffered fatal marijuana overdoses, Patterson replied, “I am aware of a few deaths from marijuana,” but he could supply no substantiating numbers. The DEA website states, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.” Unable to recite the amount of arrests for illegal drug use logged in 2016, he was informed by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, that marijuana alone accounted for 800,000, that African-Americans were nearly 3.5 times more likely to face those charges, and — reading from a Washington Post headline — that “more people were arrested for pot than for murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery combined.”
Patterson managed a significant concession by declining to label marijuana as the gateway to more dangerous drugs. Yet, when asked why cannabis remained classified as a Schedule 1 substance, every bit as lethal as heroin and more dangerous than cocaine, Patterson’s demeanor was so unflappable he could’ve been holding a pair of deuces or a royal flush. “The reason it remains in Schedule 1,” he said with a straight face, “is because of the science.”
In June, Patterson announced his intention to retire, stating his job had become “increasingly challenging.”
• • •
Anticipating the worst, Jose Belen of Lake Mary told his wife to hide his guns. The Iraq stuff kept banging back on him — the death of his best buddy in 2003, the civilians in the car, the dying little girl he and his jumpy Army cohorts had shredded with gunfire.
Belen left the military with a PTSD diagnosis in 2005, but he kept it on the down low — how would that play with prospective employers? In his lucrative role as a salesman with a high-profile insurance company, smoking pot helped. But he lived in fear of random corporate drug tests, so he sometimes went months between tokes, feeling like a deviant with a double life. He tried holding it together by taking mild mood-leveling scripts for depression and insomnia.
By 2016, things at home were getting so scary that his wife, Danielle, insisted he level with the VA doctors. They prescribed heavy-duty meds. But after weeks of rage and binge-drinking, another doctor told him it was the wrong combination, he needed to get off, ASAP. But he needed to first go clean for two weeks, cold turkey, before beginning a new regimen.
The spins, nausea and hot flashes flared up the very next day, as Belen was working out at a gym. He dashed to the bathroom and convulsed over the toilet. He needed to go home. He texted Danielle, who couldn’t shake free. He grabbed his daughter from gym day-care downstairs.
“By this time, I could barely walk, the migraine, the nausea, dry heaving, all coming at one time. I lived 10, 15 minutes from the gym and by this time, I’m actually throwing up, my daughter’s in the car, I’m sweating, I call my stepson and say, ‘Be in the driveway, I’m really sick, get your sister and lock yourself in your room.’
“By the grace of God, I made it to the house, I had my shirt off, I’d puked all over myself, and my son got my daughter. It was terrifying and I didn’t want them to see, and it kept getting worse and worse. I had my underwear on, I was in a fetal position in the living room.
“And it was just so hot, I was crying. I ran up to my daughter’s room — she had a rosary over her bed — and I ran back downstairs and put it over my head and started saying ‘Our Fathers’ ... One part of your mind is telling you you’re crazy. Every time I closed my eyes I saw this picture of the Joker that I had seen a few months before.” Belen taps his tattooed forearm, where Batman’s inky nemesis flashes a maniac grin. “This is peak PTSD. This is what I put on my body to never forget that day and everything I went through.”
Today, following the detox nightmare, the 35-year-old combat veteran holds a Florida medical marijuana card. He credits remedies considered of no medical value by the federal government — cannabis oils, creams, extracts — for the even keel. And for “immediate relief,” the native New Yorker also smokes bud, which remains illegal in Florida. As a result, he has found the voice he never knew he had.
Belen has become a motivational public speaker, advocating for suicide prevention efforts and expanded business support for veterans through his Mission Zero nonprofit. In April, his profile went viral, with appearances on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and on C-SPAN, where he was a panelist in a discussion of marijuana as an exit drug. Those invitations came because of what he did in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan in February.
Fed up with being criminalized by Schedule 1, Belen joined four plaintiffs in a long-shot legal challenge against the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging the federal ban against marijuana is unconstitutional. Joining him are former NFL star Marvin Washington, along with 7-year-old Jagger Cotte, whose severe neurological disorder is being treated by cannabis. Also listed is 12-year-old Alexis Bortell, a “medical refugee” who had to leave Texas for fear of prosecution and move to Colorado in order to receive legal marijuana treatment for epilepsy.
Belen says he feels humbled to speak for everyone whose stories are never told.
“My poor wife — the things she had to endure,” he says. “Spouses are so hyperfocused on keeping their spouses alive, when do they have time to look in the mirror and take care of themselves? And what about the children who are living through this, where daddy just killed himself in the other room? How’s that kid gonna go through life?”
• • •
Resistance to cannabis as medicine “has nothing to do with cannabis,” insists Dr. Mikhail Kogan, medical director of the George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine in Washington. “I can probably list half a thousand effective modalities of treatment that are strongly evidenced, and yet they are not advocated for the medical field. Clinicians are very conservative.”
Kogan, who did consulting work for two years with a Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, appeared with Belen on C-Span’s “exit drug” panel in April. He says critics of the VA are barking up the wrong tree, suicides or no.
“If the physician has an ethical dilemma, they should leave the VA and go to work for the private sector. That’s it. And they can prescribe cannabis there. I got out of the VA when I realized my hands were tied on so many fronts, and I knew it was my ethical responsibility to serve my patients to the best of what I ethically see fit.
“But I’m not going to argue that the institution as a whole is so screwed up, because they’re not, they’re trying to keep above the water. And frankly, they’re doing a lot better than 99 percent of the institutions in this country.”
Kogan maintains that cannabis should be de-scheduled, not rescheduled, because it’s “safer than Tylenol.” But according Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, reassigning marijuana’s status is only the beginning. What the nation should be gearing up for, he says, is regulatory oversight at the federal level.
“Each state has their own laws on cannabis, right? The problem is that the regulation then falls on each state, which is a monumental task. It is not just an issue of oversight of the plant, but also the production and sale of goods processed from the plant, like edibles, tinctures, oils, whatever,” says Bonn-Miller, coordinating principal investigator of a study on the impact of marijuana on veterans with PTSD.
“If you create an extract from a plant that has been sprayed with pesticides, you are super concentrating those pesticides in your extract. Same goes for other chemicals or byproducts of the production process or whatever method you’ve used to get higher yields and more profits. Those are winding up in the products that people are consuming. We know tomatoes grow on a vine, but what did they go through to wind up diced and in a can? Imagine if you had a system with no oversight over canned tomatoes.”
That oversight responsibility would rest with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Kogan says the real elephant in the room is an FDA action that lumbered through the door in June. That’s when the FDA issued its first-ever stamp of approval to a marijuana product, a non-psychoactive extract called Epidiolex. Designed to treat two types of pediatric seizure disorders by a United Kingdom company called GW Pharmaceuticals, Epidiolex is expected to reach the market this fall.
For the past 20 years, researchers have been documenting the “entourage effect,” in which marijuana compounds often work best on patients by complementing each other, depending on the ailment. Kogan says advocates of botanical marijuana could find themselves trumped and out-spent by corporate drugmakers if they fail to invest in rigorous research.
“The pharmacological agents may have a certain biochemical efficacy, but chances are they’re not going to have the kind of whole-body effect that can interact with every cell in your body. But it’s not going to be enough to say plants are just as effective and they’re cheaper than pharmacological entities in the long run,” he says. And impediments to proving that through research will continue “until we get rid of Schedule 1.”
America offers two rails for rescheduling marijuana, according to a Brookings Institution analysis.
The straightest path is through legislative action on Capitol Hill, where Congress is free to amend, in any way it sees fit, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Vilified with an anti-Semitic rant from President Nixon, impervious to the subsequent discovery of cannabinoid receptors embedded in human physiology, marijuana’s irrational status as a danger to society has been condoned by lawmakers ever since.
The second option is through executive action, which requires White House backing. Infinitely more complex, executive action runs such a gauntlet of federal bureaucracies, it borders on farce. More on that later.
In 1970, American support for legalization was a fearful 12 percent. Today, according to a Center for American Progress poll released in June, support has more than quintupled, to 68 percent. Consequently, with 30 states sanctioning medical cannabis, and with nine of those legalizing personal use, Congress might well have enough votes to reclassify marijuana today.
That’s the assessment of Paul Armentano, deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The 48-year-old nonprofit keeps scorecards on congressional members, and 62 percent of the combined houses receive passing grades of “C” or higher when it comes to loosening the reins on reefer.
Furthermore, in a bipartisan bid to break the gridlock and secure more votes to remove marijuana from Schedule 1, four U.S. representatives — Don Young, R-Arkansas; Dana Rohrabacher, R-California; Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon; and Jared Polis, D-Colorado — in 2017 registered as a Congressional Member Organization entity, called the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.
“Unfortunately,” says Armentano, “there has yet to even be a single hearing in Congress for a piece of legislation to address that issue, because committee chairs keep making sure these bills never reach the floor. At this point, in 2018, I could foresee a situation where all 50 states have legalized marijuana medically and Congress keeps Schedule 1. There has been no political will to move on this issue for the last 20 years.”
On NORML’s scorecard, the biggest obstructionists on Capitol Hill are Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who chairs the House Rules Committee, House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who runs the Senate Judiciary Committee. Their offices did not reply to requests for comment from the Herald-Tribune.
Even if Armentano’s 50-legal-states scenario came to pass, it would do veterans no good. Which is why Gen. Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001, suggests dispensing with structural roadblocks altogether when it comes to getting help for America’s defenders.
A Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient who has undergone eight surgeries, many related to his 450 airborne jumps and a recent accident, Shelton himself is in chronic pain and can barely walk. “I’ve never tried marijuana,” he says, “but I’m a big fan of it.” The stories he hears are so convincing, he says, the new VA director should get off the fence and be a fierce advocate.
“Let’s change the system. There’s nothing magic about it, it wasn’t written in blood,” says Shelton, who served under presidents Clinton and Bush. “I think it’s something our nation needs to be dealing with and I think it might even be higher in the chain than the VA on the federal level in Washington. We ought to even consider having the National Security Council take a look at it.”
Taking the stalemate to the NSC is unheard of. But for Shelton, a special-operations visionary who challenged the status quo by expanding veterans’ benefits and negotiating for the highest pay raises in 14 years, the epidemic of military suicides is a challenge to the nation’s conscience.
“When you have veterans that are suffering because of some quirk in the law or because someone is just too lazy to do the work that it takes to get this stuff done, then that’s a real issue,” Shelton says of the crisis. “And sometimes they need help, like a brick through a plate glass window.”
• • •
About 10:20 a.m. on March 9, at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, situated in the middle of wine country, a decorated veteran suffering from PTSD pulled a rental car into its parking lot. Albert Wong, 36, had been expelled days earlier for bringing knives into the place. Wearing an ammo belt and carrying a rifle, Wong stepped out of the vehicle. He headed for Madison Hall, where staffers were holding a farewell party for departing employees.
Madison Hall was part of a model residential treatment facility called The Pathway Home. Established in 2008 and profiled by Smithsonian Magazine in 2010, Pathway accepted some of war’s most troubled survivors, and was redesigned for early intervention services in 2015.
Wong opened fire and took out Pathway Home’s core leadership: executive director Christine Loeber, 48; therapist and program clinical director Jen Golick, 42; and 32-year-old Jennifer Gonzalez Shushereba, a pregnant VA psychologist based in San Francisco. After exchanging shots with a Napa County sheriff’s deputy, Wong turned his gun on himself.
Perhaps none grieved more than those Pathway helped. The most visible of its former patients is Adam Schumann. “I felt like a piece of me was lost in that whole disaster,” Schumann says from his home in Minot, North Dakota. “That place saved my life.”
Schumann’s story went Hollywood in 2017. Based on a biography by Washington Post reporter David Finkel, “Thank You for Your Service” was partially filmed at Pathway Home, with Miles Teller — who played an aspiring jazz drummer in “Whiplash" and will play Maverick in the upcoming remake of “Top Gun” — starring in the lead role.
It is difficult to imagine how any of America’s lawmakers and policy wonks who have not literally tasted blood on their tongues can relate to the despair that would eventually drive Schumann to his basement back in Kansas, loading a shotgun and sticking the barrel under his chin. Confronted by his pleading wife, the former Army staff sergeant ended the 20-minute standoff when he heard his baby son upstairs, rousing from a nap in his crib.
Schumann, 36, survived three tours of Iraq, where roadside bombs would claim the lives, one by one, of 11 members of his battalion. He was infected with guilt following the death of a new arrival, who had volunteered to take his place on patrol so Schumann could video chat with his wife.
In 2007, Schumann was leading a platoon in Sadr City when a sniper shot one of his men in the head. Schumann gathered his colleague from the rooftop and hoisted him over his back. He struggled down three flights of stairs, at an angle where the leaking wound dribbled blood into Schumann’s mouth.
“I got some of his brains in my mouth, too,” says Schumann, who left the military in 2009 and came home with traumatic brain injury. “So every now and then, if I get a certain taste or texture in my mouth, I’ll lose my appetite for a few days.”
Shortly after the VA loaded him up with scripts for pain and stress, Schumann began complaining of excruciating abdominal issues. A lab dye test indicated “my liver was huge, and the doctor said, ‘You have to be an alcoholic.’ I kept telling him ‘I don’t drink.’ He said, ‘You look like you’ve been drinking heavily for 20 years.’ But I wasn’t abusing the medication — I was taking it as directed.”
Schumann’s now ex-wife went online and identified the culprit as acetaminophen, a pain-reliever ingredient. He agreed to toss the pills and kick. He detoxed on the couch, pillow over his face to muffle the withdrawal screams. “Looking back,” he says, “I’m thinking if I was trying to kill someone, this is the kind of cocktail I’d give ’em.”
Schumann spent six months as a patient at Pathway Home in 2011. He returned in 2014-15 as a peer support counselor, “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.” Marijuana was a major part of it. No smoking was allowed at Pathway, but he and his fellow veterans had no problems getting their hands on pot outside. He has fond memories of rolling blunts with his buddies, hopping on Segways, and heading for secluded hills in the vineyards, airing it all out beneath California’s mild skies.
“(Marijuana) has given me a portion of my life back that I didn’t think I would’ve had,” he says. “Like my appetite. I love to cook, I love to eat now.
“I smoke every day, and I would like to think I contribute to society. I’d like to think I’m helping raise the next generation of smart little kids — they’re straight-A students, and my daughter wants to be a trauma surgeon.”
The Pathway Home remains closed indefinitely.
• • •
“You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them?” This is President Richard Nixon, speaking to White House aide Bob Haldeman, May 26, 1971, on a secret Oval Office recording released in 2002. “I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish.”
In 1996, two years after Nixon’s death, top policy adviser John Ehrlichman revealed to Harper’s magazine writer Dan Baum that the “war on drugs” was conceived as a weapon to wield against political enemies, namely, antiwar protesters and blacks.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black,” Ehrlichman told Baum in an article that wasn’t published until this April. “And then, criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The transcripts of Nixon’s White House tapes read like a John Belushi-era “Saturday Night Live” skit. Calling the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 “the best thing that has hit the country in the narcotics field,” Nixon trots out clichés that could’ve been lifted from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics:
“A person does not drink to get drunk. A person drinks to have fun.”
“A person does not drink simply for the purpose of getting high. You take drugs for the purpose of getting high.”
“You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general: These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the Communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff, they’re trying to destroy us.”
The Controlled Substances Act was designed to codify America’s myriad drug laws under a single statute. Congress arbitrarily assigned no-medicinal-value Schedule 1 status to marijuana as a placeholder until it could be formally reviewed by a special panel. After all, in a 1971 Journal of the American Medical Association article that would foreshadow the avalanche of revelations to come, researchers announced marijuana was relieving intraocular pressure in some glaucoma patients.
The review board was called the National Commission on Marihuana (sic) and Drug Abuse. At the outset, Nixon informed the commission chair, former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer, that he expected a unanimous recommendation for keeping cannabis outlawed. Instead, the 14-member board returned a not-guilty verdict in 1972.
Rather than documenting the sorts of hyper-kinetic spasmodics depicted in the 1936 propaganda film “Reefer Madness,” the commission instead discovered that marijuana tended to make users passive, if not downright drowsy. While commissioners discouraged its use, they compared pot’s risks with alcohol and urged an end to prohibition. The Nixon administration ignored the recommendations of its own study, and Congress failed to lead.
Since 1972, the Schedule 1 legacy of the only U.S. president to resign from office has generated well over 20 million arrests of Americans on marijuana charges, according to NORML. An American Civil Liberties Union study puts the the annual estimated cost of enforcing those laws at $3.6 billion.
Glaucoma sufferer Robert Randall became America’s first certified medical marijuana patient in 1975. Today, more than 2.1 million Americans have legal access to a drug that, according to its Schedule 1 status, can kill you as fast as a syringe of brown street smack.
• • •
There will always be verifiable tales of shiftless Cheech & Chong stoners whose incapacitating recreational habits have become cultural archetypes. Less publicized are counterintuitive testimonials from the likes of Charles Claybaker, who says a glut of prescription meds, not cannabis, left him listless and inert.
Last Veterans Day, the 34-year-old St. Petersburg resident was one of two Honored Veterans cited by the city, and for good reason. Consider the trajectory:
After suffering career-ending injuries in Afghanistan, the former Army Ranger earned a degree, with honors, from Eckerd College, in small nonprofit management. That gave Claybaker a leg up on his new mission: mobilizing local resources to help those who aren’t so lucky. In 2015, he started a nonprofit foundation designed to get “survival packs” — clean socks, sunscreen, nonperishable snacks, batteries, etc. — to veterans having difficulty decompressing into civilian life. Claybaker also led a fundraising drive to build the St. Petersburg Veterans Memorial. It was dedicated in January, at Dell Holmes Park.
Claybaker attributes a large part of his postwar success to marijuana. “College was incredibly hard, but the pot killed the pain, and it allowed me to focus and keep my mind from wandering all over the place,” he says.
A former special operations sergeant whose fifth tour in a combat zone ended in 2010 with a V-22 Osprey crash in Afghanistan that smashed his spine, knee and hip, Claybaker was wary of the opioids that the VA gave him while he was still in service. There was heroin addiction in his family. Knowing his field days were over, Claybaker detoxed before leaving the Army and took the pain. “So I spent the last eight months pretty much suffering.”
Military career over, Claybaker was initially reluctant to accept his friends’ advice to try marijuana.
“A lot of guys are real apprehensive about it, I mean hey, we’re all special ops and we don’t wanna wind up like some hippie dude,” he says. “But that’s how it always starts out, like ‘Bro, you gotta try this, it works.’” Claybaker can’t suppress the smile. “And then, it’s like ‘Bro!’”
Claybaker today has trimmed the scripts back to Zoloft and Wellbutrin. He sees buddies self-medicating with alcohol, which he considers far more dangerous than marijuana. He says one committed suicide by cop.
“I don’t get it,” he says. “I’m a Republican, and if for no other reason than economics, we need access to this to save ourselves a lot of money in the future on detox clinics, addiction therapy, all that. Fiscally, it’s a no-brainer.”
And then there’s Tyson Manker, who wants to reform an entire system.
Marijuana became a zero-tolerance military taboo in 1981, after a Navy plane crashed on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz. Fourteen sailors were killed, 45 were injured, and traces of marijuana turned up in six autopsies. Although no evidence linked cannabis to the accident, marijuana took the fall and President Reagan imposed a no-mercy policy across the military spectrum.
Corporal Tyson Manker, 3rd Battalion 7th Marine Regiment, probably isn’t the kind of target Nixon had in mind while plotting vendettas against political enemies. Manker’s unit was on point in April 2003 when it rumbled into Baghdad. For Manker, the journey reached its nadir in Karbala, where the Illinois native had to clean up a Humvee after a corpsman buddy suffered an explosive fatal wound from an accidental weapon discharge.
Then came the marijuana thing.
Manker got busted in rank, was fined $1,500, got kicked out of the service with an “other than honorable” discharge, lost his $50,000 signing bonus, lost his Montgomery G.I. Bill for college and all the money he had contributed to it, and lost his Illinois veterans grant. No pension. No VA benefits. Insult to injury, he is barred from joining a veterans service organization, or having “veteran” listed on his driver’s license.
Today, Manker is a staff attorney in Washington, D.C. for the Veterans Education Success nonprofit, which offers free legal service to veterans and protects their access to higher education. He is also the public face for those kicked out of the military with “bad paper,” or anything less than an honorable discharge.
Represented by Yale’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, Manker is rolling his own grievances into a class-action lawsuit against the Naval Discharge Review Board, claiming it is biased against veterans suffering from PTSD. Discharge review boards hear appeals from those who want their dismissals reconsidered and upgraded. Several hundred thousand veterans are estimated to inhabit this category.
The NDRB, which also governs Marines, denies 85 percent of all requests, the highest rejection rate in the armed forces. Manker suspects a majority of those are drug-related, and that a vast majority of those involve cannabis.
In late 2003, on the front end of a 30-day leave after rotating back to the States from Iraq, Manker and his buddies tried numbing themselves out through cannabis and alcohol. Knowing marijuana lingers in the system for 30 days, Manker lit up that one night only.
His urinalysis came back clean after he returned to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, California. But a colleague turned up dirty and ratted him out. For three hours, under intense interrogation, Manker denied he’d smoked marijuana. After being threatened with 50 years of prison time, he broke and confessed as he was being fingerprinted.
Manker spent several years adrift in dark places. In 2009, he was jumped by a stranger outside a bar who stabbed him 10 times, once in the jugular vein. But he was resilient. He pulled himself together, majored in political science, earned a law degree in Illinois, passed the state bar exam, and became a trial lawyer. The academic journey also alerted him to his eligibility for VA options no one had told him about. He was in for a surprise when he got his hands on the post-deployment health assessment form he had filled out while in Iraq in 2003. According to the rules, his answers should have triggered red flags for PTSD.
“And I find that a guy at battalion level just sat there and checked ‘no further screening needed’ for the entire battalion. Nobody even bothered to interview me. I mean, I should’ve been in a f---ing hospital in Germany along with the rest of my unit. How many times has this happened?”
Maj. Maggie Seymour, USMC Reserves, is a marathon runner in Beaufort, South Carolina, for whom marijuana has no personal appeal. She has served on several ad hoc administrative separation panels, convened to retain or discharge a Marine for conduct infractions. She calls Manker’s expulsion “a heartbreaking case” that underscores the military’s hard-wired and arbitrary bias against marijuana.
“It’s a risk-averse culture,” she says. “Everyone just wants to check the box and cover their ass. But at some point that begins hurting the patients, hurting the Marines, the people underneath you who have figured out a way to treat issues resulting from combat situations we put them into.
“It’s like, ‘I’ll just follow the rules, without any respect or understanding of the person as a whole or the issues, and if something bad happens, it’s not on me, it’s not my fault.’”
In March, with backup from Yale and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, Manker submitted a class-action suit to a federal court in Connecticut against the NDRB on behalf of sailors and Marines whose appeals were snubbed by the NDRB when their issues involved PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury). He says the NDRB is ignoring its own rules. He wants the NDRB to contact everyone it has rejected over the past 15 years, and he wants it to encourage those rejects to reapply for upgrades.
Ironically, Manker attributes his academic and professional successes to Nixon’s revenge: “I used marijuana all through law school. It’s one of the reasons I graduated in less than three years and passed the Illinois bar the first try. It helped me focus, it helped me sleep. To me, it’s the same thing as having a beer after work.”
• • •
Army sergeant Kris Goldsmith didn’t get expelled for marijuana. He got kicked out for trying to kill himself.
During a yearlong deployment to Iraq in 2005, he was assigned to document atrocities in what had degenerated into a religious war between Shiite and Sunni militias. He recorded everything, mass graves, mutilated cadavers, the remains of tortured children — enough images to slither into his dreams forever.
Hoping to get out in 2007, Goldsmith was informed he was under stop-loss orders. In May of that year, on the evening before he was scheduled to ship back to the land of corpses, a buddy found him collapsed in a field in Fort Stewart, felled by chasing half a bottle of Percocet with vodka.
Two weeks after checking out of the base psych ward, the Army hit him with two Article 15 nonjudicial punishments, one for “malingering” and the other for “missing movement.” His request for a court martial was denied, and by August he had been drummed out on a general discharge, which he regards as unacceptable. Three months after his separation, at age 22, Goldsmith was diagnosed for PTSD.
“Rather than looking at my suicide attempt as a legitimate mental health issue, they looked at it as a criminal issue,” says Goldsmith. “If they really thought my suicide attempt was a criminal act, they would’ve put me through a trial. But rehab and due process are too costly to the mission of combat.
“What’s really troubling is, the average person who gets bad paper is more likely to die of suicide, more likely to be incarcerated, and more likely to have chronic health issues, not just mental but physical, especially if they’re denied VA health care.”
According to VA statistics from June, of the roughly 20 daily veteran suicides, six recently received some VA health care coverage and 14 did not.
Today, Goldsmith is the founder of a nonprofit called High Ground Veterans Advocacy, designed to empower veterans with leadership skills to champion veterans’ rights. He also serves as an assistant director for policy and government affairs with Vietnam Veterans of America. In 2016, he appealed to the Army Discharge Review Board in hopes of getting an honorable discharge.
Although marijuana doesn’t agree with him, Goldsmith has buddies who rely on cannabis for everything from PTSD to chronic back pain. “I’m jealous of my friends who are able to use it as a kind of cure-all,” he says. “The fact that they’ve got something that works for them, and that they have to technically break a law to attain that — that’s kind of insane to me.”
Goldsmith says a random memory can send him into a three-month tailspin. He’s had two good years now, and takes Duloxetine and Wellbutrin for depression. “It works for me,” he says, “but I don’t know what it’s doing to my liver.”
• • •
You can trace the military’s prickly engagement with marijuana at least as far back as the American occupation of the Panama Canal Zone in the 1920s. In the July-December 1933 issue of a journal called The Military Surgeon, an article titled “Mariajuana (sic) Smoking In Panama” described one of the first attempts to assess its behavioral impact on servicemen.
For context, the Surgeon piece cited the 20th edition of the United States Dispensatory, a guide to eclectic pharmacological and botanical solutions for a range of illnesses, published in 1918. Cannabis was said to create “a peculiar delirium ... accompanied by exaltation of the imaginative function and later by a remarkable loss of time.” The tome noted accompanying “motor weakness and diminished reflexes” and drowsiness, but acknowledged marijuana’s ability to “relieve pain, to encourage sleep, and to soothe restlessness.”
In response to occupation authorities’ concerns about what was happening to American troops as they smoked cannabis with Panamanian natives, 34 soldiers “known to be or suspected of being marijuana smokers” were put under quarantined observation at various times from December 1931 to October 1932 in a hospital setting. Although the report stated none of the subjects “exhibited psychotic symptoms,” it paradoxically added that “62 percent were constitutional psychopaths and 23 percent were morons, a total of 85 percent mentally abnormal.”
Ranging in age from 19 to 33, the soldiers smoked an average of five joints a day. They “lost reserve, became animated, laughed without adequate cause, and talked foolishly.” All reported getting the munchies afterwards, and “there was no tendency to combativeness or destructiveness.”
The report recommended keeping military bases marijuana-free, although it saw no reason to prohibit cannabis from being sold or used in civilian areas. The authors also upbraided officers for the way they “estimate(d) the efficiency and soldierly qualities in their commands.” The report said commanders “have unduly emphasized the effects of mariajuana, disregarding the fact that a large proportion of the delinquents are morons or psychopaths, which conditions of themselves would serve to account for delinquency.”
Eighty-five years later, this actual but clownish account of monitoring troops on cannabis underscores the vacuum of legitimate scientific research in this field. A study currently underway in Phoenix will change all that. But the hurdles to that project imposed by Schedule 1, and the prospects for moving forward, put its future in doubt.
“We bombed the city before we went in. Our mission was to clear the Jolan district, right, like that was the hardest of the hard. Push ’em back to the Euphrates. There were foreign fighters there, Chechens, these were the real deal guys, imported from Syria and who knows where else, they were smart. Fighting guys who want to die, they get hyped up on all these drugs, they shot themselves up with adrenaline, I mean, you’re shooting a guy and he’s still coming at you saying ‘Allah akbar!’ It’s like ‘The Walking Dead.’”
The second battle of Fallujah, November-December 2004, has been described as the most brutal urban combat since the Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War in 1968. Josh Frey rolled into the ruined city with the 3rd Battalion 1st Marines.
“On, like, the 25th of November, an RPG skipped across the street and I peeked over thinking it didn’t blow up and then bloom! The blast hit me but I’ve got so many guardian angels I can’t even explain why I’m here, actually. It just peppered me with shrapnel, burns all over my face and maybe a concussion. I think that’s where the TBI (traumatic brain injury) came from, that plus all the tanks firing and all those explosions, there were so many explosions, controlled dets and firefights and I’m just trying to stay alive and that’s why I am like I am now, with this anxiety.”
Frey, 41, is a gregarious raconteur who speaks in run-on sentences and gesticulates emphatically when he remembers Fallujah. He was an Mk 19 gunner aboard a Humvee, where the blood, gear and a photo of his immediate predecessor’s wife had yet to be cleared. Frey says he knew he was done after what happened on the cold rainy morning of Dec. 12.
Frey and a buddy caught a glimpse of two gunmen scurrying across the street in the distance. They opened fire and missed. The whole place lit up. As the Marines gave chase, Frey’s sergeant ordered him to bring grenades.
“So I run back, I hop in the Humvee and grab the grenade crate and throw it on the hood. I start driving, my foot hits the brakes and the grenades come off the roof, they fly everywhere, and there’s Sgt. Shealey with, like two fingers blown off, and he’s kind of in shock and I’m ‘Sergeant, your hand!’ He says it’s fine, I’m like no, it ain’t fine and I grab my tourniquet and tie it real tight to stop the blood from flowing and that’s when all the other sections start rolling up.”
Frey rejoined the pursuit on foot, rounded a corner into a blasted interior courtyard that looked like the set of Road Warrior “and all hell breaks loose pop-pop-pop-pop-pop and then my weapon jams so I grabbed my vehicle commander’s weapon.” Guns blazing, Frey and the Americans burst into a room where maybe three to four enemy fighters lay waiting, he can’t remember exactly. His buddy took a round in the head and “I got hit in my shoulder, it was like instant, my bicep detached, it was definitely an AK or bigger. But we f---ed them up.
“Gunner Mortimer, he got it in the bicep but it went in and out. It was like total chaos and Doc Bradley’s hitting everybody with morphine and I’m like gimme the morphine gimme the morphine and it didn’t do anything, there was so much pain, my shoulder was basically a box of rocks and I’m bleeding out — I had to have six blood transfusions.”
Twenty-two surgeries later, three screws holding his shoulder together, Frey was diagnosed for PTSD. He tries reciting all the meds doctors prescribed back at Camp Pendleton — fentanyl, Lexapro, Pamelor, Gabitril, Percocet, methadone — but he gives up. “As soon as I left the bed, I started smoking weed. And I volunteered that information, I told ’em, I said, hey, this stuff helps me.”
When his subsequent urinalysis popped hot, “They busted me down to PFC from lance corporal,” Frey says. “Then they put me on restriction, inside the hospital, like I’m a bad little kid, like I’ve gotta check in every hour. They had me by the balls.
“Maybe because they felt sorry for me,” Frey continues, “they gave me my stripe back.” So he resumed smoking marijuana, not necessarily because it cured his pain, but because it put him at ease, which helped him manage it better.
Not only did command bust him again, they recommended him for an other-than-honorable discharge. Frey unloads a series of expletives on the colonel who started the process. The colonel’s bad paper proposal landed on a general’s desk. Unlike Tyson Manker, who committed the same offense, Frey was in for a pleasant surprise.
“She said ‘Leave him alone, he’s been through enough.’” More than a decade later, Frey says everyone’s been through enough. Civilians, too. “It’s not right,” he says. “It’s not right to keep putting us through this.”
• • •
In February 2017, a combat veteran became the first subject in a precedent-setting American study on the effects of smoked marijuana on post-traumatic stress disorder. Barring unforeseen glitches, that placebo-controlled, triple-blind randomized crossover project will be completed early next year. But the road to this milestone has been nearly half a century in the making, strewn with roadblocks at every turn.
It started in Oxford, Mississippi, 1968, when the University of Mississippi’s School of Pharmacy applied for, and was awarded, a unique contract from what eventually morphed into the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It was the nation’s first and only government-approved license to grow marijuana for research.
This exclusive deal was granted to Ole Miss two years before Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, five years before lawmakers established the Drug Enforcement Administration to prosecute violations of that Act, and six years prior to the founding of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As one of 27 agencies under the National Institutes of Health umbrella allowed to conduct marijuana studies, NIDA’s primary mission, according to a spokesperson, “has traditionally been to study the adverse effects of drugs and develop treatments” for addiction.
But when it comes to marijuana, lately it is the medicinal effects that have been keeping researchers busy. At last glance, PubMed.gov, which aggregates medical abstracts going back to 1966, lists nearly 28,000 references to marijuana, more than all the papers published on oxycodone, OxyContin, Ritalin and Adderall combined. And no wonder. The breakthroughs documented by chemists and botanists over the past 30 years are legion.
Beginning with the confirmation of chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, in lab rats during the 1980s, and the subsequent identification of cannabinoid receptors the following decade, an entirely new portrait of human physiology is emerging. Some researchers are pursuing evidence that could trace the evolution of these receptors to the beginning of the Cambrian explosion, 600 million years ago.
Called the endocannabinoid system, this revolutionary blueprint of the brain and central nervous system reveals these pervasive chemicals bind with and activate receptors throughout the bodies of all vertebrates — organs, bones, lymph cells, blood vessels. Brain maps indicate most receptors are in regions responsible for memory, cognition, emotions, appetite and motor coordination.
To date, at least 113 cannabinoids have been identified. The best known are tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive ingredient, and cannabidiol or CBD, which has no intoxicating properties. Between the two, using delivery systems as diverse as creams, oils, vaporizers and tinctures, clinicians have employed combinations to fight nausea, pain, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimers and muscle spasms, to mention a few.
But in 2017, the National Academy of Sciences stated the U.S. should have made far more progress than it has: “Specific regulatory barriers, including the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance, impede the advancement of research.” Furthermore, “Researchers often find it difficult to gain access to the quantity, quality and type of cannabis product necessary to address specific research questions.”
Few know how high those bureaucratic hoops are better than New College alumnus Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. Since 1986, Doblin has been supporting clinical trials aiming to get psychotropic drugs accepted as legitimate additions to psychotherapy.
In 2009, Doblin and Arizona primary care physician Dr. Sue Sisley, who would become the current project’s principal investigator, began discussions that have culminated in precedent-setting, government-approved research on the effects of cannabis on veterans with PTSD. However, nearly a decade after the brainstorming began, and with the end now in sight, their efforts could still wind up in a bureaucratic ditch.
• • •
“It doesn’t matter when, where, or what country you come from. When a veteran comes back from war, you hear the same thing — my loved one came home a different person. Well, this isn’t a figure of speech, this is a literal statement of truth. With PTSD, you’ve been in some traumatic event. And your DNA gets superheated through a process called methylation.”
Wounded by mortar fire in Sadr City in 2005, Army sergeant and psychological operations specialist Boone Cutler spent two years recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Cutler’s concerns about what happened to him in Iraq led him into the frontier of epigenetic adaptation. Under this scenario, now playing out in science journals, environmental events can alter the human epigenome, a chemical soup of compounds that sends instructions to DNA and modifies its function to fit a situation.
According to the journal Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, “epigenetic alterations ... can be transmitted trans-generationally and could be associated with a wide range of diseases including several reproductive disorders.” Boone Cutler argues that life under fire activated his “warrior gene,” which he suspects he inherited as a third-generation military veteran.
“It’s like this. The first time you get shot at, you’ve got PTSD. After maybe a hundred times you’ve gotten used to it,” says Cutler, also diagnosed for early-onset Parkinson’s as a result of his blast-related injury. “By time I left Iraq, I was eating pizza bagels in a combat environment and I could give a f---. My DNA had prepared me for it.”
After transitioning to a civilian environment, however, these epigenetic adaptations that affected his endocrine system didn’t serve the Army veteran well, with the attendant insomnia and hyper-vigilance. Then Cutler investigated marijuana’s cannabinoid phenomenon, and it turned him around. “What the endocannabinoid system does is restore balance to the endocrine system, to all the body’s systems,” he says. “But the endocannabinoid system does not work without cannabinoids.”
Still, Cutler doesn’t blame the VA for initially loading him up on opioids that didn’t work. “I believed in that standard of care at the time, too,” he says.
Today, Cutler is a partner in a CBD retailer called Warfighter Hemp. He also hosts a talk-radio program on veterans issues from his home in Reno, Nevada, and is attempting to get veterans to sign on to his anti-suicide Spartan Pledge. But Cutler’s immersion into the world of epigenetic adaptation also leaves him concerned for society at large.
“It scares me a little that we actually have a warrior caste. It’s a different ethos, and the warrior wants to do it over and over again,” he says. “But you put that in a civilian environment? Sometimes what you get is a criminal.”
A decade removed from the war in Iraq, the entire tank platoon who served with former Army Sgt. Matthew Garrison showed up for the funeral. All except one, a sergeant who couldn’t make it because he was stuck in a Moroccan desert. But he phoned Matthew’s father, and Steve Garrison will never forget his words.
“He said, ‘Mr. Garrison, Matt saved more American lives than anyone I’ve ever met in this Army.’ One day his lieutenant told him ‘We’re gonna go out there with privates and metal detectors’ and my son said ‘Lieutenant, please don’t kill my soldiers, don’t do it.’ The lieutenant says ‘Sergeant, nobody wants to kill your soldiers; if you have a better plan, tell me and we’ll do it.’
“My son says ‘Listen, I spent a year (excavating) French antiquities, and the first lesson you learn is, you look for structure. You’re gonna put my men on a road and snipers are gonna pick ’em off, and you’re gonna kill my soldiers.’ He said, ‘We’re gonna go in Humvees and we’re gonna look for structures just like I did in France, we’re gonna look for disturbed earth, we’re gonna look for spots where the rocks are a little bigger than other rocks because that’s where they’ve dug, that’s where the IEDs are, that’s where the weapons cache is, and that’s where we’ll dismount.’ And that day, they found the biggest cache they’d found in Iraq as of that date, where there was a 500-pound Russian bomb.”
Matt Garrison would discover and dispose of so many insurgent bombs during his two tours of Iraq, he came home with a Bronze Star — as well as PTSD, an 80 percent disability, and deafness in one ear. His dad keeps a constant reminder of Matt’s extraordinary perceptual abilities looped around his neck. Matt found it in France, when he was a young foreign exchange student.
It’s an ancient bronze coin, minted during the 222-235 A.D. reign of emperor Severus Alexander. Matt also recovered a pair of lead Roman dice, as well as the remains of a bell, from what had likely been a troop campsite during Pax Romana.
Maybe the warrior gene played a role in that Bronze Star as well — it has at least a century’s worth of pedigree. Matt’s great-grandfathers fought on opposite sides during World War I. One of his grandfathers had two ships sunk from beneath him by U-boats in the Atlantic during the Second World War. His father is a Vietnam vet, Navy. He has two brothers who served. All three would follow dad into a sprawling nursery business in South Florida’s rural Homestead.
Matt was the one who struggled with war-zone ghosts, physical pain, abrupt mood swings, the whole laundry list. A former undercover narcotics officer in New York who became police chief at the Miami-Dade town of Virginia Gardens, Matt’s dad knew that cannabis was safer than opioids. Steve Garrison told his son that he should smoke a joint, it’ll help you sleep. But Matt was embroiled in a child-custody squabble; a positive court-ordered urinalysis could ruin everything.
“He said, ‘Daddy, I’d love to, but I can’t afford to take a chance, and as long as I’ve got a prescription bottle, I’ll use it.” Matt also indulged an ample supply of liquor. “He had an enlarged heart and it was exacerbated by all the drugs he was taking,” says Steve. “And he’d sit there and kill a whole bottle of Johnnie Walker Black in one sitting.”
Matt died of suspected heart failure in January 2017, at age 35, during a road trip in Maryland, where he was attending a nursery show. When Steve Garrison, 73, talks about the kind of man Matt turned out to be, his voice breaks. So he poured his grief into a mission: “I have a moral responsibility to my son and his fellow soldiers, to do anything that I possibly can.”
In 2017, he applied for a medical marijuana grow license from the Florida Department of Health on the first day permitting began. His application status has been “pending” ever since, even as growers without veterans’ credentials — Florida has veterans preference laws — have acquired permits. He and his veteran sons are suing the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee’s Second Judicial Circuit Court.
• • •
Since 2010, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies’ medical marijuana research model for veterans has survived a series of momentum swings. It has been put on hold by the Food and Drug Administration, approved by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, scrutinized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, rejected by the Public Health Service, rejected by NIDA — until, finally, in 2014, it cleared what appeared to be its last hurdle by getting everyone on board.
Then the green light flashed red again.
NIDA had informed MAPS in 2011 that it could deliver whatever marijuana researchers needed from the University of Mississippi. In 2014, NIDA backtracked, saying it needed another growing season. In 2015, NIDA told MAPS one of the four strains it ordered fell below the 12 percent THC/12 percent CBD content requested. MAPS accepted the lower percentages rather than wait. When the first Ole Miss shipment arrived in early 2017, MAPS site principal investigator Sue Sisley complained about its smell and its quality, which generated more headline controversy.
Never mind that public opinion gathered behind medical marijuana during the Obama years, and that more states voted to legalize personal use. The DEA continued to rigorously prosecute federal cannabis laws; from 2011-17, its marijuana busts produced 41,701 arrests and the seizure of $233,462,591.93 in assets. But in response to mounting criticism about the half-century grow monopoly at Ole Miss, in 2016 the DEA announced it would grant licenses to farmers hoping to cash in on federal research.
To date, the DEA has received 26 applications. None have been granted, because Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the agency to suspend the screening process.
“Sessions and the DEA are not rejecting any of the applications, because they have no legal grounds to reject them,” says Doblin, the MAPS executive director. “So what they’re doing is delaying. And that’s been the main strategy for 50 years, to delay. Particularly when they don’t have good arguments. In the meantime, we keep having all these veteran suicides.”
Given Congress’ unwillingness to confront Schedule 1, America’s second option for rescheduling marijuana lies with the executive branch. And that path leads to remedy schematics evoking a Rube Goldberg contraption.
According to the Brookings flowchart, the Health and Human Services secretary, the AG’s office or an “interested third party” can request from the HHS a scientific assessment of the data. With an assist from the FDA, HHS reports its findings back to the AG. The AG, most likely with an assist from the DEA, conducts its own independent review of the evidence.
If the AG determines rescheduling is needed, that office then begins working on Executive Order 12866, which mandates a cost-benefit analysis of proposed new regulations regarded as “economically significant.” At that point, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a branch of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, weighs in with final suggestions before the policy shift.
On record as saying “Good people don’t smoke pot,” Sessions has never disguised his contempt for cannabis. Last December, he huddled with 81-year-old former Nixon drug czar Robert DuPont, reportedly to address federal strategies to contain growing public support for marijuana. Among DuPont’s suggestions was making drug testing a mandatory addition to primary health care. In January, Sessions revoked the Obama-era “Cole memo” that allowed states to develop their own marijuana rules without federal meddling, and vowed a return to the “rule of law.”
DuPont, also the first director of NIDA, left the government to pursue new opportunities on the front end of President Reagan’s “Just Say No” era. In 1982, DuPont joined former DEA chief Peter Bensinger to form a workplace drug testing and employee counseling service, called Bensinger, DuPont & Associates. Chief among its clients were corporate human resources departments, but the company was just one of many startups looking to jump on this growth market. According to the analytics firm Research and Markets, the global drug-testing industry passed the $3 billion mark in 2016.
Bensinger recently sold his ties to the company, and although he acknowledges some “medicinal value” to marijuana, he sees no reason to remove it from Schedule 1, due to the presence of THC.
Informed that some veterans regard themselves as second-class citizens because of the prohibition, Bensinger says “Some of us don’t think marijuana is good medicine. So you could take the position that they’re second-class citizens, or you could say, because they are under federal jurisdiction, they are protected from it.”
In June, President Trump said he would “probably” support legislative proposals to make it illegal for the federal government to interfere with state cannabis laws. However, back in February, Israeli media reported that Trump called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and asked him to cancel planned exports of Israeli medical marijuana into the U.S. Netanyahu told his cabinet that the deal was off, at least for now, leaving $100 million worth of high-quality Israeli cannabis with nowhere to go.
However, the ongoing MAPS study could be upended by a Catch-22 that has nothing to do with the rescheduling controversy.
Working on a $2.1 million research grant from the state of Colorado, MAPS began testing veterans at the Scottsdale Research Institute in Phoenix in early 2017. It got no help from the VA regional office in Phoenix, which snubbed MAPS’ appeal to circulate flyers for PTSD-diagnosed patients. Nevertheless, MAPS expects to meet its baseline quota of 76 subjects, and complete its Phase II clinical trials, by early next year. Phase II testing is designed to assess the efficacy and side effects of new drugs.
Here’s the rub: The FDA requires Phase III trials to be conducted with the actual product its sponsor plans to bring to the market. But the marijuana provided by NIDA and Ole Miss is prohibited from commercial use and therefore cannot be employed for Phase III.
With commercial grow-license applications in limbo and a big shipment of Israeli marijuana scuttled, Doblin says successful Phase II results could hit a dead end. “Unless we break that monopoly,” he says, “we’re kind of stuck.”
NIDA issued a statement to the Herald-Tribune pointing out a way forward: “It is feasible that a commercial enterprise interested in applying for drug approval using government-provided marijuana could produce bio-equivalent materials for the market.”
• • •
Reality went sideways for Nick Butterworth in Iraq, and it wasn’t just the roadside bombs. He was driving 14-ton M915 rigs for the Army, running supplies in armed convoys from one base to another, when the mission changed. After the first couple of months, his unit had nothing to haul. The delivery contracts had been farmed out to corporate giant Kellogg Brown & Root.
“So here we are, making $30,000 a year providing security for KBR drivers pulling down $120,000, OK? They were doing our jobs.” Butterworth takes a hit on his back porch in Cape Coral, and holds it in. “And it wasn’t just American civilians, there were third-country nationals, too. Somebody was making a lot of money, and it wasn’t us.”
The stuff he’s inhaling is called honey. It’s an amber liquid packed into a cartridge that fits inside a slender vape pen that fits easily inside a shirt pocket. Florida allows ingestion by applying heat to liquid, or vaporization, but not flame-to-herb smoking. And this extract, in more ways than one, is not your daddy’s dope.
In the 1970s, according to NIDA, the average joint contained 1 percent THC. Today, the THC range on commercial shelves in legal personal-use states like Colorado and Oregon usually runs anywhere from 20-29 percent by weight.
His supply, acquired with a Florida medical card and produced by the Trulieve medical dispensary, is certified Godzilla-grade 82 percent THC. A little goes a long way. But it’s pricey. At his rate of consumption, Butterworth estimates this $75 cartridge will last less than a week.
Trulieve spokeswoman Victoria Walker estimates 10 percent of the 130,000-plus Floridians on the medical marijuana registry are veterans. Veterans get a discount, but because of Schedule 1, insurance won’t touch it, and expenses are all out-of-pocket.
Butterworth prefers to hit the cannabis sativa in the morning, like a pick-me-up cup of coffee. He might finish the day with a nightcap of cannabis indica to help him sleep, and work on hybrid combinations during the day. If it sounds like he smokes a lot, Butterworth — who left the Army with fluctuating back pain and PTSD — says the prescription alternatives left him feeling self-absorbed and lethargic.
Since getting his medical card last year, the native New Yorker now legally enjoys trips with his family to Disney and Busch Gardens. He also volunteers with a Cape Coral nonprofit called Wolfhounds Legacy, which trains rescue-shelter dogs to become service dogs for veterans. It takes patience. He has two himself, Camo and Abigail.
And there’s another quirk that can sound a little weird coming from someone with a bad back: He plays ice hockey in a Tampa-area veterans club. Afterward, his spine pays the price.
“I’ve gotta do it, I’ve gotta have that rush of adrenaline. I am addicted to that. Having said that,” adds Butterworth, who grew up playing hockey in Buffalo, “there’s no high like being shot at in a war. There really is nothing that gets your adrenaline going like almost dying.”
Last year, the American Legion, the oldest and largest veterans service organization in the U.S., could ignore the facts no longer. Since the expansion of its Veterans Crisis Line in 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been logging 500,000 phone calls, e-chats and text messages annually, and its staff have sent emergency services to callers more than 66,000 times. And since early 2015, the Legion itself has been getting swamped by calls from traumatized Iraq/Afghanistan veterans for whom VA prescriptions weren’t working. They wanted legal access to marijuana.
The Legion conducted its own membership survey. Ninety-two percent of veteran households supported research into the medical benefits of cannabis. Eighty-three percent favored medical legalization, and 82 percent wanted marijuana as a treatment option. The poll indicated 22 percent of veterans are already using marijuana as medicine.
At its convention last August, the Legion called on the VA to allow its doctors to at least discuss marijuana with patients. In November, at a press conference in Washington, with selected politicians in attendance, the Legion advocated ripping the Schedule 1 label off marijuana in order to expedite medical research. Its featured speakers included Boone Cutler, Josh Frey and Janine Lutz, who lost her Marine son to an intentional morphine overdose in 2013.
Lutz’s testimony — “In my son’s mind, he thought his two previous attempts were something that he wanted to do, he did not know it was because of the pharmaceuticals, and he was terrified” — was the emotional centerpiece of the Legion’s message to Congress.
In December, the VA announced it would authorize its physicians to discuss, but not prescribe, medical marijuana for veterans. But it stayed silent on Schedule 1. Consequently, a handful of politically active veterans agreed to make yet another run on Washington, the Saturday before Memorial Day. They would call it the “Plants Over Pills” rally.
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The stage is a small raised platform set up at Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House. It supports a single public-address speaker and a podium bearing Janine Lutz’s “Live To Tell” nonprofit logo, alongside a portrait of her son in uniform. At 9 a.m., the heat and humidity are stifling, and there is no shade for relief.
The lineup includes a dozen speakers, all veterans, save for Lutz, and they outnumber the bystanders, at least initially. Event coordinator Derek Cloutier, USMC, Fallujah survivor, and founder of the kick-opioids-with-marijuana New England Veterans Alliance, goes first. He is followed by speakers taking turns with tales of trauma, addiction, confusion, guilt and — at least for now — stability through marijuana.
Somewhere in between speeches, a handful of veterans hoists the eye-catching Lutz Memorial Wall, unfurls it before the podium, and stands silently beneath the enervating sun. Each portrait bears a watermark of “PTS” or “PTSD.” Janine Lutz dropped the “D” mid-project after it occurred to her that what the afflicted have in common isn’t a disorder, but a sane and natural human response to horror.
Clustering in pools of shade along the perimeter, bystanders begin to linger at the spread of suicide faces, 369 in all, the rough equivalent of 16 days’ worth of self-annihilation in America. Kyle Bartee wanders over and drops to her knees. Her son’s combat boots dangle from her backpack. Her son, former Army private Brennan Conklin, PTSD, TBI, three back fractures, is immortalized here. In 2013, at a park in Raleigh, at age 25, Brennan hanged himself.
At noon or thereabouts, the veterans move out, hoisting the wall of the dead vertically for traffic and tourists to see. Leading the way with the Stars and Stripes is former Army PFC Ryan Walton, Iraq, a first responder to the rogue terrorist bloodbath that left 13 soldiers dead and 30 wounded at Fort Hood in 2009. Walton’s T-shirt is emblazoned with a red, white and blue marijuana leaf. Spectators who appear to be civilians are closing ranks and following their lead.
By time the marchers cross the street and complete the short hike to the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters on Vermont Avenue, the crowd is maybe a hundred strong. The chants crank up. “Plants over pills!” “Pills! Kill!” “Pills! Kill!” Some light up. The wall of the dead now squares off at the front door of the VA. “No more! Drug war!” The aroma of reefer, legal now on public streets in the District of Columbia, wafts above the demonstration. No one from the VA bothers to address them.
In short order, the crowd reverses course and heads back towards Lafayette Square, south to Pennsylvania Avenue, and fans out on the pedestrian mall before the White House. Visitors speaking many languages make room for a black and red banner that reads “It’s estimated that each day 22 US veterans end their own lives.” Its hashtag, #milemarker, refers to a cross-country PTSD documentary produced by Army veteran Korey Rowe.
“What number is your stopping point?” Army veteran Leo Bridgewater, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a healthy set of pipes and doesn’t need a bullhorn as he paces to and fro. “This is really happening!” Some tourists walk on by, others reach for their cameras. “This is real!” Bridgewater has appeared before the New Jersey State Assembly and successfully lobbied for the inclusion of PTSD in the state’s medical marijuana coverage. “We’ve done multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan! For you!” In February, he joined a lawsuit challenging the Justice Department for its “unconstitutional” obstinance in blocking marijuana research. “And look what you got for your money!
“You got 22 veteran suicides a day! That’s what you got for your money! You got an opioid abuse and addiction epidemic!”
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John Allen, 26, 2nd Battalion 8th Marines, knows three comrades who killed themselves and another four who died of opioid overdoses. In the aftermath of what happened on Sept. 29, 2013, in Camp Lejeune, Allen knows he could’ve been one of them. Shortly after the worst day of his life, he woke up one morning with a broken back. Allen had been prescribed Ambien, among other things, which spurred him to sleepwalk out a high window and tumble more than 30 feet. His career ended on a medical discharge in 2014.
Lately, at home in Milford, Michigan, he has whittled his medications from 16 down to three and says, “I only take Valium for emergencies.” He has quit the drinking that cost him his marriage. He credits marijuana for leveling him out and helping him sleep safely.
On Memorial Day weekend, John Allen went into action. He spent $300 for gas and supplies and drove eight hours in order to reunite, one more time, with Rory Dalgliesh, his best buddy in the Corps.
Allen wears an olive T-shirt with a marijuana leaf next to the letters “Rx.” He has a black headband embroidered with a cannabis plant and green lettering stating “100 % Legal.” He affixes an American flag to his backpack. During the speeches and the march, Allen latches onto the end link of the Lutz Wall that contains Rory’s photo.
Rory Dalgliesh had been a SAW gunner in Afghanistan and was feeling lost. Allen says Rory, a fellow Michigander, was getting ready to muster out, a divorce was likely, and he was “on a stupid amount” of scripts. He had been complaining about how they made him feel, the sadness. Were marijuana available, Allen says “there’s no doubt in my mind” it wouldn’t have ended the way it did.
“We pulled up at his soon-to-be ex-wife’s work, and he started crying. He pulled out a .38 and said I’m gonna go in there and I’m gonna shoot her and I’m gonna shoot myself and that’ll fix everything.” Allen talked him off the ledge, took his gun, and diverted his attention to a pool table. They started drinking. Rory was inebriated, but he seemed OK and he didn’t live far. Allen placed the gun in Rory’s car. He followed Rory home, just to make sure he arrived safely.
Allen returned to Rory’s place the next morning. The front door was open. Every time he thinks about Rory, this is what he sees first. And he thinks about Rory every day.
“And when I went inside I ... I just know that smell. And I could smell death. So I kept walking in the living room and he was slumped over on the couch. I went over to him and checked his pulse.” Rory was warm to the touch, but his struggles were over. “I took the gun out of his hand.”
Allen talks about how he moved his buddy off the couch to attempt futile life-saving measures, and how “his head hit the ground hard.” Allen’s sunglasses come off. He wipes the emotion away with the heel of his hand. He was just 21. Rory will be 23 forever. “And I got a pillow and put it underneath his head.”
The Lutz Memorial Wall honors veterans who’ve taken their lives as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. The 369 faces pictured here represent roughly two weeks’ worth of self-inflicted fatalities.