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Many soldiers return from combat to face an ongoing challenge at home, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some research and anecdotes indicate that marijuana can be an effective treatment. And we have two reports now about that.
First, Chris Remington has the story of one veteran who's had some success treating his symptoms with pot. He's also had some conflict with the VA because of it.
CHRIS REMINGTON, BYLINE: Sergeant Ryan Begin hasn't always been the life-loving pot smoker he is today. Back in 2005, he nearly lost half his arm to an IED while serving in Iraq and was sent home for reconstructive surgery. Upon his return to Belfast, Maine, Begin was plagued by physical pain and outbursts of aggression. He was prescribed a cocktail of drugs as his treatment.
SERGEANT RYAN BEGIN: They took the soul out of me - all that stuff, it, like, drained my soul, blackened my soul.
REMINGTON: Begin's mother, Anna, noticed the prescription drugs seemed to exacerbate his PTSD symptoms.
ANNA BEGIN: He withdrew from everybody. I mean, I'd seen him over the years attempt suicide. And I was worried everyday that I'd get the call that he succeeded.
REMINGTON: On July 21st, 2009 Begin reached a critical low. He crashed his truck while drunk and high on narcotic painkillers and then assaulted the responding officer. He was sentenced to 43 days in jail. When Begin got out of jail, he sought group therapy and an alternative to powerful prescription drugs. He qualified for medicinal marijuana because of the physical pain and was aware of its effects.
Begin started smoking every day. He soon found he no longer needed painkillers for his arm and his emotional outbreaks from PTSD were more manageable.
BEGIN: Marijuana, it gives you that opportunity to think because it allows you to be more conscious of what's going around you. It just allows you that chance, that opportunity to breath.
REMINGTON: When Begin first started smoking he saw a primary care provider at the VA for basic health needs. However, once his physician became aware of his marijuana prescription, Begin was given an ultimatum.
BEGIN: He would continue to write me scripts for the Valium, dextroamphetamine and the Seroquel, if I agreed not to smoke pot.
REMINGTON: Begin's physician and top VA officials refused to be interviewed for this story.
However, I did speak with psychiatrist 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.
DR. LISA WALKER: A VA physician's completion of a form that would permit a patient to participate in a state medical marijuana program could result in the DEA actually or threatening to revoke the physician's registration to prescribe controlled substances, as well as potential criminal charges.
REMINGTON: 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 can no longer recommend the drug, but will still answer any questions her patient's have about marijuana.
WALKER: I personally - just in the context of a private appointment with a vet - can answer questions and would have no - I would feel no constraints about, you know, offering what I know about medical cannabis.
REMINGTON: Even if veterans with PTSD are informed about marijuana as a treatment option, and are in one of the handful of states where it can be used, access is still an issue. VA policies prohibit covering the cost of the drug, so Sergeant Begin will 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 is a supporter of alternative treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
DR. STEPHEN XENAKIS: I mean, all the funding and the programmatic guidance comes from the Congress. And there will have to be a consensus amongst the congressional representatives that this is something that's good for the soldiers and veterans and that they're willing to pay for it.
REMINGTON: And as for Sergeant Ryan Begin, he now campaigns for medicinal marijuana alongside veterans across the country. He's hopeful other soldiers suffering from PTSD will one day have access to the medication that changed his life.
For NPR News, I'm Chris Remington.
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