As Medical Marijuana Becomes More Accepted, Veterans Urge the VA To Prescribe It
Though medical marijuana is legal in most states, the Department of Veterans Affairs will neither recommend nor prescribe it because of a longstanding federal law.
Charles Claybaker spent five tours in Afghanistan, kicking in doors and taking out terrorists. But an aircraft crash in 2010 left the Army Ranger with a crushed leg, hip and spine and a traumatic brain injury.
Army doctors loaded him up with a dozen prescriptions to numb the pain and keep his PTSD in check.
But Claybaker said the pills transformed him from a highly-trained fighter into a zombie for at least two hours a day.
"I'm talking mouth open, staring into space," Claybaker said.
Claybaker decided he would rather live in constant pain. He took himself off opioids and suffered for eight months.
Then, after retiring and moving back to St. Petersburg, Fla. he discovered marijuana - and he said it changed his life.
"I can just take a couple of puffs sometimes. It just depends on the day and what's going on or how bad it is," Claybaker said.
He says marijuana relieved his pain and helped with his anxiety. Claybaker says marijuana also helped him focus and he finally started feeling more like himself.
"I was a 2013 gold medalist at the Warrior Games in archery, I graduated summa cum laude from Eckerd College, I started my own charity. I adopted my 14-year-old brother who is now on a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State," he said. "I understand that marijuana has some ills, but for me personally, it absolutely helped me do all those things."
In order to get the drug, though, he had to break the law. Though medicinal marijuana is legal in Florida, the federal government says it's a crime to use it. Claybaker and other soldiers can't get prescriptions from the VA, and their insurance won't cover the cost.
Under VA policies, the agency says it will not recommend marijuana nor help veterans obtain it. The VA says veterans who use marijuana will not be denied VA care, but they need to obtain the substance themselves and pay for it out-of-pocket. A month's supply from a dispensary can be more than $500.
Claybaker was among more than a dozen veterans recently profiled in a 20-page report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. They're pushing the federal government to reclassify marijuana. The vets are using the drug to treat conditions ranging from pain to PTSD.
But the veterans face an uphill battle. That's because marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 drug, which means it has no medical value. The classification, along with the its federal illegal status, means there hasn't been a lot of medical research on marijuana.
"We're realizing that there's a lot of holes here in our knowledge," said Ziva Cooper, an associate professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center.
Last year, Cooper and other researchers published a study that evaluated 10,000 scientific papers in which marijuana was referenced. They found substantial evidence that chronic pain can be reduced by marijuana and substances known as cannabinoids that are found in it. Those cannabinoids include a widely sold product known as CBD.
But, the report found no scientific studies on marijuana's use for PTSD.
"We need those rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to inform us if cannabis can actually help with this, or cannabinoids," Cooper said.
Janine Lutz said marijuana could have saved her son, John, who died from suicide after serving as a Marine Lance Corporal in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He returned home to Davie, Fla. in 2011 with knee and back injuries and a severe case of PTSD.
In 2013, doctors at the VA prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for his PTSD, despite a note in his records that it had led to a previous suicide attempt. His mom said he was dead within a week.
"I would call that a pharmaceutically-induced suicide," Janine Lutz said. "And I actually sued the VA for that and I won my case."
Lutz received $250,000 in a settlement with the VA.
Today Lutz runs the Live To Tell Foundation, which supports military veterans. Families of vets who died by suicide send her their photos, which she laminates and links to her traveling Memorial Wall. Her "Buddy Up" events bring veterans together so they can form bonds and look out for one another.
It was at those events that she learned how many veterans self-medicate with marijuana. Lutz said the government needs to act.
"Stop playing games with the lives of America's sons and daughters, and if they want cannabis, give it to them and stop giving them these psychotropic dangerous drugs that are destroying their bodies and their minds," Lutz said.
The American Legion polled its 2 million members and found 92 percent favored marijuana research and 81 percent support federal legalization.
The group has since joined in the effort to push Congress to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug.
So far, that request has gone nowhere.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he has to follow the rules.
"I'm not a doctor, never played one on television. I'm not a scientist," Wilkie said in an interview. "I will follow the federal law. And the federal law is very clear."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.