By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux,
Every morning, former Air Force senior airman Amy Rising makes breakfast for her second-grader, drives him to school and returns home to prepare what she calls her medicine.
She suffers from severe anxiety after four years working in the frenetic global command center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, coordinating bombings and other missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rising says she has found a treatment that helps her cope. But her local Veterans Affairs hospital does not provide it — because her medicine is a joint.
At a time when the legalized use of marijuana is gaining greater acceptance across the country, Rising is among a growing number of veterans who are coming out of the “cannabis closet” and pressing the government to recognize pot as a legitimate treatment for the wounds of war. They say it is effective for addressing various physical and psychological conditions related to military service — from chronic back pain and neuropathic issues to panic attacks and insomnia — and often preferable to widely prescribed opioid painkillers and other drugs.
Researchers in the United States and several other countries have found evidence that cannabis can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and pain, although studies — for instance, looking into the best strains and proper dosages — remain in the early stages.
Veterans are lobbying for more states to legalize cannabis for medical use — 23 states and the District allow this — but the primary target is the federal government and, in particular, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and LSD, deeming that it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. That means that VA, which runs the largest network of hospitals and health clinics in the country, cannot prescribe pot as a treatment, even for veterans who live in a state where medical marijuana is legal.
VA says that its physicians and chronic-pain specialists “are prohibited from recommending and prescribing medical marijuana for PTSD or other pain-related issues.” Medical staff are also prohibited from completing paperwork required to enroll in state marijuana programs because they are “federal employees who must comply with federal law,” said Gina Jackson, a VA spokeswoman.
The swelling chorus of veterans who want to take advantage of marijuana but can’t reflects the growing disconnect between more tolerant state policies and the federal government’s unwillingness to budge.
Advocates such as Rising say it is urgent that the federal government recognizes marijuana as a treatment because there are so many veterans of recent wars.
Although Rising did not serve in Afghanistan or Iraq, she said the pressure of her work was intense. “What was really hard about working in command was never being able to see the damage you did on the ground,” she said. “You start to think about all the orphans and widows you created, and that you do hit civilians.”
Without marijuana to treat what she says is PTSD, Rising said she feels “like the Incredible Hulk and that danger is around every corner and that my nerves could explode.”
After dropping off her son at school on a recent morning, she prepared a pair of blunts. She took some pot out of a jar, dumped the guts of two Dutch Masters cigars and re-rolled them with the marijuana. Then she slipped her blue Air Force jacket over her blue and white flower-print dress and went into her suburban back yard to smoke, putting her long, blond curls behind her ears.
If veterans report their use of marijuana to VA, they could face criminal charges if they live in a state where it is illegal. And though few have indeed been charged, the mere possibility has spawned a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Michael Krawitz, a former Air Force staff sergeant and the director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.
VA medical staff have warned that… Read More