A veteran of the Iraq war who lives in Novato and the self-styled godmother of medical marijuana dispensaries in California have teamed up to create the Veterans Cannabis Group.
The new organization is a medical marijuana delivery service that also will function as a support group and resource center for military veterans.
"The idea is let veterans know there is a place they can come to feel comfortable asking questions and get access to safe medicine," said Aaron Augustis, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1998, and retired as a sergeant in 2003. He worked as a combat engineer and spent the last seven months of his tour of duty stationed near Mosul in Iraq.
Like many Iraq veterans, Augustis said he suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder. Augustis said when he first returned he found himself overwhelmed by waves of emotion.
"When I didn't have cannabis, the waves were intense, just kind of uncontrollable," Augustis said. "When I smoked cannabis, I calmed down."
The group's co-founder is Lynnette Shaw, who in 1996 opened the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Fairfax, the first medical marijuana dispensary in the state to operate under the auspices of California's Compassionate Use Act. In 2011, a crackdown launched by Melinda Haag, the San Francisco-based U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, shut down the Marin Alliance. But in October 2015, Shaw received a favorable ruling in federal court that allowed her to return to the medical marijuana arena.
"I'm very, very happy and very excited to be coming back," Shaw said. "I'm very patriotic, and I've helped vets my whole life. When I was 17 and the guy I was sweet on came back from Vietnam a mess, I ran out and got him some medical marijuana."
Shaw said a group of veterans used to meet at the Marin Alliance, but they met in secret after hours because at the time the Veterans Administration could deny medical care to veterans who tested positive for marijuana. Shaw said she too suffers from PTSD due to a traumatic incident that occurred when she was young.
"I tried to commit suicide myself," she said. "PTSD is a life-threatening illness."
Last week, Augustis and Shaw hosted a gathering at American Legion Post 37 in San Rafael to introduce their new organization to local veterans. Speakers at the meeting included representatives from several organizations that are partnering with Veterans Cannabis Group. The organizations included: HelloMD, which allows people to get a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana via the internet; Giggle Therapeutics, which produces "healthy" cannabis-laced edibles; Reset Go, a life coaching group that counsels vets; and Grow for VETS, a national organization based in Colorado that connects veterans with the knowledge and resources to obtain or grow their own cannabis.
HelloMD's chief medical officer, Dr. Perry Solomon, a board-certified anesthesiologist, said a ruling by the Medical Board of California in October 2015 made it possible for doctors to issue recommendations for cannabis via the internet.
"The person needs to be in California at the time of the evaluation," Solomon said. "But our doctors can be all over the country, and they are as long as they have their California license."
Solomon said the Department of Veterans Affairs can no longer deny medical treatment to veterans who test positive for cannabis as it once could, but Veterans Health Administration doctors still cannot prescribe or recommend cannabis for their patients. Instead, Solomon said the doctors continue to rely on alternatives such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet.
Questioning the wisdom of this approach, Solomon noted that the Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that an average of 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide every day and that in 2014, 7,400 vets killed themselves.
One of the attendees at last week's meeting was Victoria Sanders of Novato, who suffers from PTSD due to a sexual assault she suffered while serving in the Army.
"When I get into a room full of people I get uncomfortable; the experience I had taught me that you have to be on alert all the time," Sanders said. "The cannabis loosens the wheels. I feel much more comfortable when I don't have the pounding in my chest."
Kathy Lehman of Novato, who suffered a trauma while serving in the Women's Army Corps that she prefers not to discuss, said, "I use cannabis for back pain and for my PTSD to calm down. Sometimes you feel like the only one. It's nice when you can get out with other veterans and see what they're doing and how they're coping."
Anthony Rangel, founder of the Bay Area chapter of Grow for Vets, reminded the audience, "Cannabis is not a cure-all medicine."
"There are a lot of things that play into health, such as physical activity, reading a book or seeing a therapist," Rangel said. "Just noticing somebody can make a world of difference."
Marilyn Spoja, co-founder of Reset Go whose son is in the U.S. Marine Corps, offers four three-hour sessions of counseling free to veterans and their dependents.
"The people who take my class are in high stress," Spoja said. "They are freaked out that their life isn't working out." ___
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This article was written by Richard Halstead from The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.