This fall, Maine joined six other states that now allow the prescription of medicinal marijuana to treat diagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. And some, including veterans, have turned to pot as an alternative to powerful pharmaceuticals. But the Veteran’s Administration has not embraced this treatment, and that’s forced some Maine vets to make a choice. Chris Remington of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies produced this profile.Sgt. Ryan Begin starts most days by lighting up. “I enjoy waking up and smoking marijuana, cause it puts me in the present, it reminds me that I’m here and now.”His marijuana is prescribed. It’s for his PTSD. Sgt. Begin was diagnosed with this disorder after returning home from Iraq. On Oct. 9, Maine joined six other states across the nation which recognized PTSD as a condition treatable by medicinal marijuana.Begin joined the Army after dropping out of college in Florida, summer of 2004. It was one of the most violent years in the war. A year later, his combat unit was hit by an IED and his arm was almost severed by shrapnel.He left Iraq, had reconstructive surgery and was prescribed a cocktail of drugs to treat his physical pain and the anxiety and outbursts of aggression that plagued him when he returned. Ryan’s mother, Anne, saw how the incident continued to affect him psychologically.
“He just withdrew from everybody. I had seen him over the years attempt suicide and I was worried everyday that I’d get the call that he succeeded.”
On July 21, 2009, Begin reached a critical low. He crashed his truck while drunk and high on narcotic painkillers, and then assaulted the responding officer and was sentenced to 43 days in prison. At the time of the crash, Begin was taking anti-anxiety medications, opiates, sleeping pills and anti-depressants. He saw this long list of drugs as part of the problem.
“They took the soul out of me all that stuff, it drained my soul, it blackened my soul.”
When Begin got out of prison, he sought alternative treatment for his mental instability. He had tried marijuana in the past and researched its medicinal properties. Begin qualified for a marijuana prescription because of his physical disability and began smoking everyday.
After a few months, Ryan found he no longer needed painkillers for his arm and his emotional outbreaks from PTSD were more manageable.
“Marijuana gives you that opportunity to think because it allows you to be more conscious of what’s going around you, it gives you that chance, that opportunity to breathe.”
When Begin first started smoking he saw a primary care provider at the VA for basic health needs. “Saying marijuana in the VA is exactly like saying bomb on an airplane.}
Once his physician became aware of his marijuana prescription, Begin was given an ultimatum: “He would continue to write me scripts for the valium, dextroamphetamine and the seroquel if I agreed not to smoke pot.”
VA officials refused numerous opportunities to be interviewed for this story. However, I did speak with Lisa Walker who works in the El Paso VA’s telemedicine program. She says VA physicians can face severe repercussions if they assist patients in entering a state medical marijuana program.
“A VA physician’s completion of a form that would permit a patient to participate in a state marijuana program could result in the DEA threatening the physician’s ability to prescribe controlled substances, as well as potential criminal charges.”
Before joining the VA, Walker owned a private practice in New Mexico, where she provided patients with PTSD the qualification to access the state’s medical marijuana program. She has seen the drugs ability to control patients’ anxiety and violent tendencies, and feels free to share this information with vets in El Paso.
“I personally in the context of a private appointment with a Vet could answer questions and would feel no constraints about offering what I know about medical cannabis.”
Even if veterans are informed about marijuana as a treatment option and are qualified to use it, access is still an issue. VA policies prohibit covering the cost of the drug, which cause Sgt. Begin to spend up to $800 a month on his medicine.
Researchers in the field believe any change in policy by the VA will have to come from Congress. Dr. Stephen Xenakis is a retired Army brigadier general who has written extensively on alternative treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I mean all of the funding and the programmatic guidance comes from the Congress, and there will have to be a consensus amongst the congressioal representatives that this is something that is good for the soldiers and veterans, and that they are willing to pay for it.”
As Arizona and Michigan consider legalizing marijuana for PTSD, the federal government may reconsider its position on the class 1 drug. Sgt. Ryan Begin now campaigns for medicinal marijuana, and is hopeful other soldiers suffering from PTSD will have access to the medication that changed his life.
This story is one of the radio productions featured in an exhibition of student work at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, which holds a reception and open house Thursday evening, Dec. 12, in Portland.