Sean Azzariti, a former corporal in the Marines, says medical marijuana saved his life.
Two tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2005 left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he was barely getting by on a cocktail of antidepressants, Adderall and sleeping pills. With few options, he said, he did some research on marijuana and began taking it shortly after leaving the Marine Corps in 2006.
"It changed my life," he told The Washington Times. "I wouldn't be talking to you right now if I kept taking those pills."
Mr. Azzariti said marijuana helped calm him and stopped his nightmares. He said he still smokes pot every day to keep his symptoms in check and thinks other veterans should have the option to use medicinal marijuana instead of pills.
As a Colorado resident, Mr. Azzariti lives in one of two states that have legalized broad use of marijuana. The Obama administration has said it generally will not try to prosecute users in those states.
But Mr. Azzariti, who made the ceremonial first purchase New Year's Day when recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado, said other veterans should be able to use the drug that has helped him so much. He endorses a push by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to have the federal government study marijuana as treatment for veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury, two of the signature injures of those conflicts.
If veterans "are going to be prescribed medical marijuana, there should be medical-based research done to determine its effectiveness," said Lauren Augustine, a member of the legislative staff at IAVA. "Anecdotally, we're hearing it's working, but we want to have evidence behind it to understand the positives and negatives."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said last month that researchers at the University of Arizona could move forward with a study of how different doses of smoked or vaporized marijuana affect veterans with PTSD.
After three years on hold, the research still can't begin. The government gave the university permission to buy medical-grade marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but the study needs more than $880,000 and authorization from the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Fierce pot debate
States' legalization of marijuana has stirred up a fierce national debate. Colorado and Washington have approved recreational pot use, and more than a dozen other states have legalized medical marijuana with a doctor's permission.
Advocates of legalization want the federal government to change the listing of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
State officials say the Obama administration has not clarified its stance after easing enforcement but refusing to give legal clearance for casual marijuana users.
IAVA has some support in Congress. Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said it's smart to study marijuana use as one treatment for afflicted veterans.
"The medical community still has much to learn about how to effectively treat traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress," Mr. Miller said in a statement. "Therefore, a study regarding the efficacy of alternative treatments, including medical marijuana, to better alleviate the PTS and TBI symptoms many of our veterans face makes sense."
The newest generation of veterans doesn't have the backing of the veterans community at large, however. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars have not taken stands on the issue, spokesmen from the organizations said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs will not consider a study as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law.
"As marijuana use is still a federal offense, VA will not provide for use or conduct research with illegal substances regardless of state laws," said Gina Jackson, a spokeswoman for the VA.
IAVA's priority is to get a study to determine marijuana's effectiveness. But retired Lt. Cmdr. Al Byrne said the government refuses to rely on studies that already show marijuana to be beneficial for PTSD, chronic pain and anxiety, among other conditions.
"There's been very little research done in the U.S. because of Congress and the stupid laws. However, there is a world out there [and] that world's been conducting research on cannabis for decades," said Cmdr. Byrne, who served 24 years in the Navy, including a tour in Vietnam.
After his military service, Cmdr. Byrne founded Patients Out of Time, a nonprofit to educate health care professionals about the benefits of marijuana.
Cmdr. Byrne's anger at the contradictory American system is palpable, and his faith in the drug is unshakable. He said he gives marijuana to his golden retrievers and has entered a hen fed with hemp seed in a DEA barbecue contest — and won.
"Cannabis is a food, it's a vegetable. It's a plant, not a drug," he said. "If you eat the cannabis like you would any vegetable, it doesn't do anything to you except its nutritional value goes through the roof."
If U.S. studies find marijuana can be beneficial to health, the next question will be whether the government's Schedule I classification can stand.
Cmdr. Byrne said it is "medically unethical, immoral and just stupid" to discriminate between who can receive what he calls a lifesaving treatment based only on the state where a patient resides.
"It's only medicine if you live in the right ZIP code," he said.
IAVA also is trying to ensure that veterans prescribed medical marijuana in states where it's legal are protected from federal prosecution.
"We want the most effective treatments being given to patients as it would help them. Right now, we need to know research behind whether it's an effective treatment to injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and give them the ability to fill prescriptions shielded from federal law," Ms. Augustine said.
Although any veteran can get access to marijuana in Colorado where recreational pot is legal, Mr. Azzariti said, some hesitate to use the drug because it could expose them to federal punishment, including loss of VA benefits.
Despite the risk, Mr. Azzariti continues to speak out about his experience in the hopes that it will help others.
"I feel like with what I'm doing right now, if I can help a few people or save a life or two by getting people's attention, I'm not very concerned about my VA benefits," he said. "It's worth the risk."
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