Marijuana Refugees: Wounded Veterans Willing to Move for Medicinal Pot

In this photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, marijuana is measured in 3.5-gram amounts and placed in cans for packaging at the Pioneer Production and Processing marijuana growing facility in Arlington, Wash. Elaine Thompson/AP
In this photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, marijuana is measured in 3.5-gram amounts and placed in cans for packaging at the Pioneer Production and Processing marijuana growing facility in Arlington, Wash. Elaine Thompson/AP

Last month, the U.S. Senate passed legislation with a provision that would allow Veterans Affairs Department doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where the drug is legal.

The language, which hasn't yet passed the House, would not change existing laws that prevent possessing or distributing marijuana on VA property, nor does it do anything for veterans in the states where medical marijuana is not legal. But for veterans and their caregivers pushing to make the drug a legal option for all, it's a welcomed start.

And for some, like the spouse of a retired Army Green Beret, it's a reason to become a "marijuana refugee."

Her husband served 26 years on active duty before he was medically retired because of the mental and physical injuries he racked up during a career that included more than 50 combat missions. Like other sources interviewed for this story, the woman requested that withhold her name so she could speak freely about the issue.

Military doctors where they live in North Carolina prescribed her husband Ambien so he could sleep, Propranolol for his tremors, Botox injections, Tramodahl and Treximet for his chronic migraines and testosterone injections for his damaged endocrine system.

A civilian medical practice also prescribed him a daily dose of Oxycodone and a Fentanyl patch to help him cope with the pain resulting from a laundry list of other medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and crippling arthritis.

She and her husband worried that so many drugs, taken continuously and indefinitely could cause him long term damage, and they voiced these concerns to his doctors. Turns out, they were right.

After developing kidney problems, a fatty liver, and gastrointestinal tract erosion, her husband was advised to stop taking as many medications as he could. Two Army doctors even suggested that their family move from North Carolina, where medical marijuana is not legal, to a state that allows use of medical cannabis. Those doctors said that marijuana would likely be a safer substitution for his myriad prescriptions.

Poll: Would you become a "marijuana refugee?"

But North Carolina was where they had put down roots, so they found a source to get marijuana on their own -- illegally. And it helped. He was still on daily Oxycodone doses and the Fentanyl patch, but marijuana helped him stop the other drugs and treatments. However, when he tested positive for marijuana, his doctors refused to refill his Oxycodone and Fentanyl prescriptions, cutting him off abruptly and advising him to go to the emergency room when he started withdrawing from the highly addictive drugs.

Having seen the good that marijuana was able to provide for her husband, she entered into a war of her own -- a fight to make the drug legal for veterans like her husband. She organized other military families with similar concerns and spent several years lobbying North Carolina's legislators to change the state's laws.

"The injuries he sustained are not visible to most people. It isn't until someone watches him for a while do they recognize there is a problem," she said. "I get tired, I get angry and I get fed up. I no longer participate in any of the activities that I once did. I have completely lost who I am. Because my husband doesn't have visible deformities, outsiders rarely understand."

But despite her impassioned pleas and frequent calls, North Carolina's legislators wouldn't budge. Medical marijuana is still illegal in the state.

"Our statistics show a 25-percent decrease in the overdose rate in legal medical marijuana states," she said. "But that fell on deaf ears. No one seemed to care. As an advocate and a caregiver for my husband, it is my job to work towards legalization for medical cannabis. However, we will now be moving."

She and her husband plan to move in 2016 -- after spending over a quarter century in North Carolina -- to a state where they can get medical marijuana, solely because of her husband's health.

"We are marijuana refugees," she said.

A former Army staff sergeant and the father of two young children who was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI said he also uses marijuana – illegally -- because it has significantly assisted him in managing his anxiety and debilitating migraines.

He is candid when asked what impact pot has had on him.

"Using marijuana saved my life," he said. "There is no way I would take meds for my entire life. I would end it first because the side effects of pharmaceuticals are as painful as the pain you're trying to get rid of."

Before trying marijuana, he said he tried all standard treatments for migraines, as well as some alternative methods like breathing techniques, acupuncture and chiropractic therapy. He's also currently in counseling and working to learn to live with the symptoms and brain effects of a TBI and PTSD.

He describes himself as ultra-sensitive to medications and said the prescriptions he took were making him miserable. The anxiety drugs gave him terrible reflux and caused sexual side effects. The migraine medications made him very drowsy and constipated.

"If you have more than 15 migraines a month like I do then the last thing you want is to be dizzy and backed up longer than you absolutely have to be," he said.

Marijuana allows him to take far less of the anxiety drugs and provides him with an alternative to the migraine medications. He described marijuana as providing a "pause" in his life.

"Having the ability to pause before making decisions when triggered by PTSD is valuable because we need more time to process," he said. "Our minds are still at war, but we do not live in war so we need to allow ourselves more time to consider a different action than the one that initially feels correct. Marijuana gives us time to manage the fire inside."

Another woman said her husband served five years in the Army as a generator mechanic. Now she serves as his caregiver. He has PTSD, TBI, herniated disks, severe sciatica, and severely limited movement and chronic pain from his hand being fused to his wrist. They have four children together, ranging from 3 years old to 19.

He was prescribed and array of medications -- Neurontin, Phenergan, Fentanyl, Cymbalta, Clonazepam, Propanolol, to name just several -- for his various conditions, but she said the drugs didn't take the pain away and left him hurting, nauseous, suffering erectile dysfunction and unable to sleep.

"He doesn't remember a whole year of his life when he was on the meds," she said. "He was suicidal and hospitalized twice, along with receiving a multiple personality diagnosis. Now we know that was just the medications."

His conditions and the drugs he was taking took a toll on the family, as well.

"My kids and I were afraid of his constant blowups, and we would do lots of things without him. The kids lost their father and I lost my spouse," she said.

But they live in Colorado, where marijuana is legal. Now, in the daytime she uses a synthetic form of marijuana that provides the benefits without the head high feeling. She said it helps him stay awake, greatly decreases his pain and nausea and increases his mobility. At night he smokes marijuana to manage his pain and help him sleep.

"Now he can relax and tolerate more of his triggers," she said. "Now he plays with our kids."

-- Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. She writes the Must Have Parent column for and is a frequent contributor to the SpouseBuzz blog. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @rsanderlin.

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