War veterans of Los Angeles wait patiently to be given the freedom to toke up. A VA policy known as VISN-22 was modernized to let veterans use medical marijuana as well as opioids while getting care, a blessing to vets who suffer pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues and suicidal tendencies.
The policy change came after California NORML, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access and affiliated groups started getting calls from veterans who had been denied their pain medications. According to NORML, former acting VA chief Jeffrey Gering had issued a rule stating that if a veteran was using medicinal marijuana, that vet must be tapered off of his or her pain meds.
That rule was tossed out, NORML says. But doctors are still clinging to the old Gering policy.
Veteran Michael Sorensen complains that vets being treated at the Los Angeles VA "have to run around ... trying not to get caught for medicinal marijuana use. We've been told by a couple staff members at the VA that if we smoke it, we lose our benefits!"
The drug is a lifesaver for Sorensen.
"Cannabis has gotten me off of 15 prescription drugs that I was taking twice a day," he proudly says.
National Veterans Foundation founder and president Floyd "Shad" Meshad, who served as a psychologist to soldiers during the Vietnam War, tells Rolling Paper, "I spoke to a representative at the [Los Angeles] VA, and the [liberalized] policy has not been put in place. It should be prescribed and available for veterans. But it's like moving through quicksand. Resistance is from the 'establishment.' It's just like gay marriage. If they haven't been doing it for years, they aren't going to allow it."
Meshad co-founded the Vet Center program, comprising more than 200 storefronts nationwide that offer mental health assistance to returning soldiers. Meanwhile, his Los Angeles–based National Veterans Foundation employs vets who answer calls made to its Lifeline for Vets — sometimes desperate calls regarding pharmaceutical overmedication for PTSD.
Says Meshad, "If marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol, and if people are reacting badly to legal pharmaceutical drugs — we are talking about a substance that is showing positive effects in treating some vets. So there's a lot of interest in it."
To his way of thinking, weed "should be monitored, prescribed and available for veterans, just like a heavy anti-inflammatory or antibiotic." He argues that weed "has positive effects and very little negative effect because it is reacting to the body's chemistry. It's all about balance. How can we tell anybody how to balance anything?
"The research is showing that the majority of vets are using it to treat their stressors," he adds. "Obviously it's working. They're not killing anybody. ... It's time we really look at it, and it's being looked at worldwide."
Meshad's cause is getting help from a well-known face in Hollywood, Vietnam veteran Dan Lauria, who met Meshad during his stint playing father Jack Arnold on TV's The Wonder Years. He immediately volunteered for the cause, lending his celeb status to help raise funds for the veterans foundation.
"Jim Handy from The Verdict and I got involved with helping the vets," Lauria explains to Rolling Paper.
Lauria is plenty busy with his career, getting ready to travel from his Sherman Oaks home to the East Coast to act in the successful off-Broadway comedy Dinner With the Boys with Ray Abruzzo (The Sopranos) and Richard Zavaglia (Donnie Brasco). The actor concedes, "I'm not an authority on the subject, and I don't even smoke myself — but I listen to people like Shad in the medical field and the findings."
Lauria fully believes in weed legalization for vets.
"When you see the problems that the veterans are having with alcohol and the suicide rate, and then you look at the effects the marijuana has in bringing these terrible things down, I don't know how anybody can deny the factual evidence. It's like the people who don't believe climate change are the ones who are going to be against it."
During his tour in Vietnam, Lauria notes, a lot of vets became alcoholics. Looking back, he says, "I almost wish they had legalized pot then. I think we would have had a lot less Vietnam alcoholics."
He'd like to see people read the research before they form opinions, "regardless of what you feel about marijuana." He adds, "It is helping them. I think the only reason it's not happening, and this is only an opinion, is I think the pharmaceutical companies are trying to put a stop to it."
Meshad wrote an essay on the VA's weed-opiates dispute for Huffington Post, arguing, "An open discussion and more information could lead to treatments more efficacious and compassionate than relying on pharmaceuticals. PTSD is a basic human response to war. Maybe there's a more humane way to treat it."
In 1978, while Meshad was lobbying for the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Bill, which resulted in the creation of the Vet Centers, author and doctor Charles Figley published Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans. Figley is a top traumatologist who dedicated his career to studying and treating trauma and was also a key figure in the classification of the term PTSD.
On Huffington Post, Meshad wrote:
"Figley thinks we should re-evaluate medical marijuana for use in treating trauma like PTSD, especially in the face of veterans being over-prescribed pharmaceuticals and psychotropic drugs, often very powerful ones, and sometimes several at a time, to treat the symptoms of PTSD.
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He has recommended other approaches to treating PTSD.
Nonpharmaceutical ways to ease PTSD include breathing techniques, acupressure and acupuncture, yoga, exercise, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, thought-field therapy, cognitive and group therapy, hobbies and, interestingly, volunteering — to name a few.
"For the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a quick prescription can be an easy answer to the onslaught of returning veterans suffering from PTSD. It moves vets through the system but at a high cost to their overall health, and with a limited chance for real recovery, management and transition back into civilian life," Meshad says.
"Vets who have used [marijuana] would doubtless agree."