LAS CRUCES, New Mexico —A growing number of veterans suffering from PTSD are using medical marijuana to ease their symptoms even though they risk violating federal drug laws.
"It helps. It just soothes you. It’s nice to know it’s something organic," said a soldier enrolled in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program.
His family does not want his name used because they live in a small town and fear there’s a stigma attached to using marijuana.
The 26-year-old combat veteran served in the Army from 2009 to 2011. During that time, he says two men in his unit committed suicide.
"That’s the hardest part. You’re here and you have a chance to survive, and yet you take that chance to zero," he said.
When he returned to his hometown, his girlfriend at the time noticed he had symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
"She was like, ‘Hey, sometimes you get paranoid. Sometimes you get angry. Sometimes you get frustrated really easy,’" said the soldier his voice breaking up.
"And it’s hard to hear that you do that. It makes you feel like a monster," he said.
The soldier found relief in New Mexico, one of only five states with medical marijuana programs that include PTSD among the treatable conditions.
"And a lot of vets moved here for that very reason, so they can be in the program," said Hilda Chavez, a naturopath and patient advocate.
Chavez helps doctors screen patients and works with those who qualify. She and the doctors require PTSD patients who want to use medical marijuana to also get counseling.
She teaches veterans which strain is best for their condition and methods of using medical marijuana that go beyond smoking.
"We have been told consistently by most of the vets that they were over-medicated with drugs that were making them sleep all day or making them more anxious, and they would lose control of their lives," said Chavez.
The young veteran from New Mexico was reluctant to take prescription drugs after he saw their effect on his older sister, another veteran suffering with PTSD.
"You’d ask her to get something and it was almost like she was doing it in slow motion. And sometimes she’d slur like she was drunk but she wasn’t. She was just on the pain meds," said the soldier.
She was addicted to the medication, he said.
"She took a nap one day and just didn’t wake up," remembered the soldier.
His sister was 30 years old when she died.
Several veterans’ organizations are urging the federal government to allow veterans to use medical marijuana, including Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access. The group "advocates for safe e and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for all appropriate therapeutic uses."
The organization and others also want research on the use of medical marijuana as a treatment alternative for PTSD and other conditions.
The organization Veterans for Compassionate Care says, "Marijuana politics blunt effort to ease PTSD" on its website. The organization also wants "a professionally controlled and monitored study program focusing on veterans’ treatment for PTSD."
Veterans Affairs declined a request for an interview but in an emailed statement said: "Marijuana remains illegal according to federal law. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) providers do not participate in medical marijuana programs even in states that have made it legal."
But according to the VA, the policy does not prevent veterans who are using medical marijuana from seeking treatment at VA facilities where "the use of marijuana is taken into account when prescribing medications and planning treatment."
The young vet from the small town in New Mexico who is using medical marijuana is getting counseling at the VA.
He says he’s feeling better these days.
"I just want the Vets to see this is living proof that there is help," he said.