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Veterans find work — and relief — with cannabis

It was daytime outside. But in the Los Angeles warehouse owned by cannabis grower THC Design, the room was pitch black — a darkness that mimics night, tricking marijuana plants into producing buds.

To avoid disrupting that cycle, Steven Passmore wore a headlamp with a subdued green bulb as he made his way down the rows, trimming leaves from the valuable plants.

Passmore didn’t understand the anxiety that started to creep in.

As he used the green lamp to navigate from plant to plant, he began to feel like he was a soldier again, back in the desert of Iraq, helping his patrol dodge roadside bombs as mortars went off all around him. Soon, Passmore was in tears.

It wasn’t until he talked to his therapist that Passmore realized the flashback was triggered by that little green light. It was the same shade imbued by night-vision goggles, which he wore routinely during the three years he served in the Army’s 4th Infantry Division.

Passmore, 33, has post-traumatic stress disorder. He also battles chronic pain from an injury — a busted clavicle — he endured in an accident caused by a roadside bomb.

Marijuana hasn’t cured his ailments. Instead, Passmore says, cannabis makes his pain and post-traumatic stress manageable. He has fewer debilitating flashbacks and he doesn’t use the opioids that have paralyzed so many veterans.

Steven Passmore, U.S Army combat veteran, smells a marijuana plant two weeks from being harvested at THC Design, a cannabis cultivation company in Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. (Photo by Ed Crisostomo, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Some 22 percent of veterans use marijuana to treat a mental or physical conditions, according to a new survey by the American Legion. And — thanks in part to programs such as THC Design’s new internship for veterans — a growing number of vets, like Passmore, are turning to careers in cannabis.

They’re doing so despite federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug on par with heroin.

That means veterans can’t get medical cannabis through Veterans Administration physicians. They risk being cut off from other prescriptions or kicked out of subsidized housing. And in the 20 states where medical marijuana remains illegal, they chance having their veterans benefits eliminated or even being hit with criminal charges if they choose to medicate with cannabis.

“They’re fearful of their freedom and their lives every single day,” said Tanganyika Daniel, who co-founded the organization Marine Qweenz to help fellow veterans find healing.

Marijuana’s federal illegality also makes it nearly impossible for American doctors to do serious research into whether cannabis really does help veterans cope with PTSD, depression, pain and other wounds of war.

After working through eight years of red tape, Dr. Sue Sisley with the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona is finally conducting the first randomized, triple-blind study into whether cannabis can help reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans. The federal government approved the study, the state of Colorado issued a grant to help fund it and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz is administering it.

Early results are positive, Sisley said, with patients in the trial reporting dark memories and flashbacks aren’t surfacing as often. And when they do, they say those episodes are less severe.

But since the Phoenix VA refuses to send patients her way, she’s struggling to find enough qualified veterans to make up a reliable sample size. She’s recently taken out billboards in hopes of recruiting the other 45 patients they need, and there’s a rally and march to draw attention to the issue Saturday in Phoenix.

“If the government would stop impeding this work, then we could start to understand more about what this plant can do,” she said.

Advocates and some legislators are trying to help, though they say they’re finding it an uphill battle.

The American Legion in September wrote a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin urging him and his department to support Sisley’s study.

“Many veterans have approached us to tell us that access to cannabis has materially improved their health and wellbeing,” wrote Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion. “While their stories are very compelling, we need clinical evidence to have a fact-based discussion on the future of cannabis policy.”

Last month, all 10 Democratic members of the House’s Committee on Veterans Affairs wrote to Shulkin asking him to let the VA lead a study on using cannabis to treat PTSD. If they can’t commit to the research, the Congress members asked the VA to spell out what’s stopping them by Nov. 14.

“What I’m trying to do is accommodate our veterans,” said Rep. Lou Correa, a Democrat from Santa Ana who signed the letter. “Whether it’s psychological or physical pain, if a veteran comes to me and says, ‘Lou, this is what helps me get though the day. This is what works for me,’ I want to take care of that veteran.”

Correa has backed other efforts to expand medical marijuana access for veterans. One amendment he supported would have allowed VA doctors to recommend cannabis and prohibit the use of federal funds to interfere with veterans’ rights to access the plant in states where it’s legal. The House Rules Committee blocked that amendment in July.

Shulkin, a physician, said during his State of the VA speech in May that “there may be some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful.” But he also said “until the time that federal law changes, we are not able to be able to prescribe medical marijuana for conditions that may be helpful.”

Even in states like California, where access is easier thanks to liberal marijuana laws, veterans have to pay for cannabis out of pocket since no insurance covers it. That means marijuana isn’t always an option, according to Passmore, who buys cannabis with his THC Design discount and gives it away to needy veterans.

For other veterans, their jobs may keep them from medicating with cannabis, since employers can still fire workers who test positive for the drug.

That’s one reason Michael Garcia, who also works at THC Design, decided to pursue a career in cannabis.

Michael Garcia, U.S Navy combat veteran, continues his work at THC Design, a cannabis cultivation company in Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. (Photo by Ed Crisostomo, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Garcia was deployed three times during his six years as a machinist in the Navy. During his first tour, the San Jose native started to battle anxiety that one day rendered him unable to move while he was on active duty. He later was diagnosed with agoraphobia, the effects of which, he said, are greatly reduced by cannabis.

At THC Design, he’s allowed to medicate while he’s working. And he doesn’t have to pee in a cup and worry about losing his job.

“I don’t have to hide who I am,” said Garcia, 35. “I can just be myself.”

For a sense of how many veterans are turning to marijuana, look no further than the M.A.A.N. Up Cannabis Veterans Ball, slated for Friday night in Hollywood.

The event, which will feature marijuana-infused cake and a keynote speech by a retired colonel, is the brainchild of Marine Queenz founder Daniel, a former Marine who tells her own tale of discovering cannabis.

Daniel was sitting on a bunker in Iraq, feeling the weight of her flak jacket and the mortars going off nearby, when the Marine next to her lit a joint.

She’d smoked pot once previously. It was just a few years earlier, in Georgia, where she was a high school cheerleader. The weed made her choke, badly enough that she decided the D.A.R.E. evangelists were right about that drug and vowed never to try it again.

But in Iraq, on top of the bunker, every ounce of her petite frame wanted one thing — sleep.

“I turned to my friend and said, ‘Let me hit that,'” she recalled.

For the first time in months, she slept peacefully.

It would be another five years or so before Daniel would touch marijuana again.

She was back home in Georgia and struggling to figure out her next step. She wasn’t sleeping or eating well, and frequently felt anxious. A doctor at the local VA prescribed her narcotics, drugs that she likened to horse tranquilizers.

Daniel struggled to remember the last time she’d slept well and recalled the bunker in Iraq.

Soon, she was stashing weed she’d bought from a street dealer in her trunk, fearing that she might be arrested for having so much as a seed in her car.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I remember driving like I had just committed murder.”

Today, Daniel sells her own line of cannabis skincare products, Jayn Green. She’s co-producing a documentary about marijuana trimmers. And during her cannabis military ball, she’ll celebrate survival while sending the message that veterans who choose marijuana instead of narcotics shouldn’t have to hide.

“We’re just trying to tell you, let us decide. Let us choose,” she said.

“Help us, or stay out of our way.”


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