IAVA | April 18, 2023
READ: With the use of cannabis, I found healing and purpose
Submitted by: Stephen Mandile, US Army National Guard Veteran
I am one of the countless veterans across America that have found more healing and an improvement in my quality of life with cannabis than I did with what my VA physician was and still has to prescribe me because of the federal prohibition on cannabis. From 2005 when I was injured in Iraq, to 2015, I took whatever medications my care team prescribed. A list of over 50 medicines, including oxycodone, oxycontin, morphine, valium, xanax, ambien, and fentanyl. All of these were great at numbing the pain at first, but over time I became numb to almost every feeling except the desire for more. During that decade, I was an angry shell of the man I once was. I would rarely leave my home, everything irritated me, and I had uncontrollable anger where I would most often choose violence over any rational decision any time I felt a threat, which was most of the time. The feeling of being a burden to my wife and useless as a father to two infant daughters became too heavy, which led to an attempt at ending my life. A failure that I am grateful for every day now.
This led to my wife demanding I get off those drugs, and what she suggested as a replacement shocked me: medicinal cannabis. Medicinal cannabis had recently been legalized in my home state of Massachusetts, and dispensaries were anticipated to be opening shortly. My initial thought was, “Do you really think I should be sitting around smoking weed?” Her thought was that anything was worth a shot, and she knew that cannabis was safer than what I was on. After looking up what I had been taking for the previous six years, I learned that fentanyl was the equivalent of pharmaceutical-grade heroin, so I had a real incentive to give medicinal cannabis a try.
Making the life-improving switch came with many barriers, the largest being financial. My wife and I had to discuss how we would go from spending zero for my VA-prescribed medicine to spending just under $1,000 a month for medicinal cannabis, which would leave me still being a burden on my family. This led me to do research on how to make it less expensive for veterans in Massachusetts. So I developed a discount program that gives veterans with a 100% disability rating a 40% discount on their medicinal cannabis purchases. I have gotten nearly twenty Massachusetts medicinal cannabis retailers to adopt this program.
Since overcoming a decade-long addiction to opioids, benzodiazepines, and sleeping pills, with the use of cannabis, I have found healing and purpose. Although the guilt of giving up hasn’t gone away, I am now able to feel like a dad that gets to be the father of the two greatest girls ever created and a husband to the most incredible woman ever. Cannabis alone did not make that happen. It also took time, a support system, other therapy methods, and the education of being present and finding purpose.
I co-created the “2019 Veterans Health and Medicinal Cannabis Study.” The research study had a 100-question anonymous survey that used a convenience sampling approach with the goal of gathering information from U.S. military veterans regarding their current health conditions, conventional medicinal treatments, medicinal cannabis use, and its effectiveness with self-reported health conditions and symptoms. The online survey was developed by Cannabis Community Care and Research Network Joint Venture & Co, UMass Dartmouth, and myself, and in 2019 was completed by over 500 Veteran respondents from 48 States, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico. We found that the top barriers reported are the cost of medicinal cannabis, the cost of purchasing a medicinal cannabis patient card, access to the right products, and stigma. Our survey asked respondents if medicinal cannabis helped to reduce the consumption or engagement with specific substances – such as opioids, alcohol, and tobacco. One incredibly significant finding was 84% of respondents indicated using fewer opioids since becoming medicinal cannabis users.
I’d love to say that I am eight years into recovery, but as recently as last May, after having major spinal cord surgery for my service-connected injuries at the VA, I was given opioids and was not allowed to be discharged until signing to leave with a bottle of oxycodone and a box of narcan. Due to the continued federal scheduling of marijuana as a class one drug along with heroin as well as the prohibition of cannabis at the VA, I do not have access to the safer medication that works best for me.
Clearly, the VA needs to reform its policy on cannabis as well as the prescribing of medications like benzodiazepines and opioids. Those medications are needed by veterans, but medicinal cannabis, the one that is best used for harm reduction and does not have dangerous side effects like overdose and death, is prohibited.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs must start taking steps to end its prohibition of cannabis now. I’m aware that the necessary first step to make those changes will require data, and although data already exists, Congress will require the VA to complete its own research. This is why I support partisan companion bills, H.R. 1003 and S. 326, The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2023, requiring the VA to conduct randomized clinical trials into the effectiveness of cannabis in improving specific health outcomes for veterans with chronic pain and PTSD. Veterans deserve a choice of having the medicine that works for them and having access to it through their primary care physician.