When It Comes to Medical Marijuana, Veterans Often Have to Improvise

A newly transplanted cannabis cutting grows at a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
A newly transplanted cannabis cutting grows at a medical marijuana cultivation facility in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

It wasn't until years after she got out of the Navy that Elizabeth Bietts went to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bietts, who worked as an airplane mechanic, said she was raped 12 times during her almost seven years in the Navy, and didn't talk about it until she went to file a claim for benefits with the VA years later.

"All these emotions had been suppressed, buried deep inside. I hadn't thought about it or talked about it," Bietts, 36, of Vernon, said during a recent phone interview. "I'd learned to live with it. Thinking about it again, it was a lot."

It kept "eating away at me," she said, until it got the point where she asked her fiancee to take her to a facility to get some help. The VA prescribed her different antidepressants, which "made her want to check out and not participate in life," she said.

Then a friend suggested she look into medical marijuana.

Until then, she had a stigma about marijuana from being in the military that it's "not good for you, you're not supposed to do it, it's illegal." But after about two to three weeks of using cannabis, she started noticing a huge difference.

"The VA, they just throw pills at you," Bietts said. "When I started using cannabis, it was completely different. Now I participate in my life. I'm active. I actually care. It's a complete 180 now."

Bietts applied for a medical marijuana card from the state of Connecticut, and received one in October 2017. She said she uses medical marijuana daily but stressed that she's responsible about when and how she uses it. She uses medical marijuana in a variety of ways, often baking or making lemonade with it. She keeps a journal of the different strains she's tried, in what form, and how it affected her, so she knows what to get at the dispensary.

Veterans like Bietts have had to navigate using medical marijuana on their own, given its federal classification as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it's illegal, so VA doctors can't recommend or prescribe it. At the same time, states increasingly are legalizing marijuana for recreational and medicinal use. At least 30 states have legalized medical marijuana. Veterans who use medical marijuana still can receive care and benefits from the VA.

Medical marijuana became legal in Connecticut in 2012. There are 30 approved conditions that qualify adults for the state's medical marijuana program, and eight for patients under 18.

The Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America plans to make easing access to medical marijuana for vets its top legislative priority. The group, with the help of Yale's Legal Veterans Services Clinic, is exploring the possibility of creating a form that would allow VA doctors to certify a veteran has one or more of the qualifying conditions. There have been several proposals in the General Assembly in recent years to waive the registration and administration fee for veterans.

The Department of Consumer Protection, which administers Connecticut's medical marijuana program, does not keep track of whether or not someone is a veteran when they register, so there's no way to know exactly how many Connecticut veterans are using medical marijuana. As of Aug. 26, there were 27,717 registered patients in Connecticut. There are nine dispensaries, four growers and 956 registered physicians in the state, according to data from DCP.

Derek Cloutier, cofounder of the New England Veterans Alliance, a nonprofit that aims to help veterans improve their quality of life through more natural and safer alternatives to pharmaceuticals, said he hears daily from vets asking for help. Cloutier, a Marine combat veteran, said cannabis pulled him off of a "dark road" and got him to socialize again without having to be at a bar.

"We want to open the eyes of vets who have been stigmatized by medical marijuana," he said. "We're not doctors, but we can tell you how we've done it."

The group hosts a "veteran check in" monthly at a medical cannabis social club in Wakefield, R.I. Vets come from all over to attend the meetup, where they pass around a joint and talk about what's on their mind.

Bietts has attended the meeting and said she felt safe expressing what happened to her during her naval service.

"You're around other like-minded people who have gone through similar things to what you've gone through. Everyone gets it," she said. "When you get out of the military, when you go back home, you kind of feel like you're alone. ... When you go to a NEVA meet up, you're back in the brotherhood. You're back to that feeling where you have your people."

Bietts said not all VA doctors are close-minded about medical marijuana but one doctor at the VA's facility in Newington made her feel "like a criminal" for having her card. The doctor, upon finding out, asked her if she abused opioids or used heroin, she said.

"I work full-time at a decent job. I'm a mom. I'm trying to be an upstanding citizen," she said.

During his tenure as secretary of the federal VA, David Shulkin eased some rules, allowing VA doctors to start talking to veterans about medical marijuana. The VA has funded marijuana studies but none of them have looked at its therapeutic potential.

The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars both support expanding research. VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the New York Times in an article published July 25 that because it's illegal federally, there's regulatory barriers to the VA studying it.

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This article is written by Julia Bergman from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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