Ricardo Pereyda came home from Iraq in 2005 a changed man. But not for the better.
Pereyda, who joined the Army after he saw the Twin Towers in New York City fall on Sept. 11, 2001, served as a military police officer.
He endured a year-long combat tour in Baghdad and other violent spots, where he saw many in his platoon suffer serious injury, mostly from improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Pereyda returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). He was in intense physical pain, with serious back and shoulder injuries.
And he felt disillusioned because he had joined up to fight al-Qaida, not Saddam Hussein, “who had nothing to do with 9/11.”
Declared by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) as 100 percent disabled, Pereyda had severe anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and anger issues.
And he couldn’t sleep.
Like so many veterans of the post-9/11 wars, he was prescribed a cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, narcotic painkillers, and more by his doctors at the VA.
But none of it worked. In fact, he said the pills made him worse. So, he decided to taper off all the meds and turn to marijuana.
“The only thing that’s really helped me with all these symptoms is cannabis [marijuana],” Pereyda said. “The pain, anger, mood swings, appetite, my sleep, all have been addressed by this one plant. I got my life back.”
Turning to marijuana
Pereyda is now on the front lines of the fight to increase veterans’ access to medical marijuana and get the VA to stop perpetrating “old stigmas” about cannabis.
Pereyda said the ongoing suicide and opioids crises among veterans are partly the result of the VA’s history of doling out prescription drugs like candy.
“It is imperative that the VA address these problems with more options and alternatives for veterans,” he said.
And he’s not alone.
Virtually every major American veterans group now supports greater access to marijuana for veterans, and they’re pushing the VA to study marijuana’s medicinal properties.
Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran and founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told Healthline that it’s a “mistake” for the VA not to pursue research on medical marijuana as an alternative treatment for veterans.
“IAVA members have overwhelmingly supported medical marijuana, as well as recreational marijuana, for many years,” Rieckhoff said.
Rieckhoff, who served as an Army first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq, said IAVA members recovering from injuries have been “extremely vocal in communicating the benefits for pain relief they’ve experienced, and in their frustration with VA’s resistance to researching marijuana.”
He added that veterans using medical marijuana for various illnesses have “seen the benefits firsthand” and have become among the most vocal proponents for legalizing marijuana for medical use.
“It is clear that more needs to be understood about the potential benefits of medical marijuana to treat a variety of symptoms and illnesses impacting veterans,” he said.
Rieckhoff noted that IAVA has “long advocated VA and Congress to fund research to assess the effectiveness of medical marijuana to treat veterans’ common injuries and to relieve pain.”
Trump’s mixed message
Even the older, historically more conservative veterans service organizations are joining the fight.
Last September, representatives from the American Legion, the veterans group that has been around since World War I, sent a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin urging him to assist in an ongoing clinical trial assessing the safety of cannabis in veterans with PTSD. The trial is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A month later, 10 Democrat members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs sent a letter to Shulkin demanding that the agency study the efficacy of medical cannabis in veterans with PTSD and other health issues.
But in a letter last week to Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., Shulkin said the VA was “restricted” from doing marijuana research because of federal law.
Numerous veterans advocates and pro-marijuana organizations quickly pointed out that Shulkin’s assertion that the VA can’t engage in marijuana research is simply not true.
“Dr. Shulkin was lying,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Healthline. “He was wrong and he knew he was wrong.”
Shulkin later acknowledged while testifying before the Senate veterans’ affairs committee that the law in fact does allow the VA to study the use of marijuana, but makes it difficult.
As a Schedule 1 drug, marijuana is officially designated as having no medical use, and requires several steps to study the plant.
“We have to go through multiple agencies [to study marijuana], and it is very challenging to work our way through that process,” Shulkin said last week.
Walz told Military.com last week that Shulkin’s comments about the VA doing research on marijuana for veterans was “dismissive.”
“Just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” Walz said.
Veterans who use marijuana
Last week, the VA declared that its doctors and pharmacists can speak with veterans about their use of marijuana for PTSD, chronic pain, and other health issues, if the veteran is signed up for a state-approved medical marijuana program.
However, at the same time the agency is making such declarations, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is cracking down on marijuana use nationwide. In many cases, he’s challenging states’ rights and desires.
Sessions, who recently rescinded a directive from the Obama administration that federal prosecutors respect state-based medical cannabis laws, is on the record saying that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
His anti-marijuana position — which he’s held for decades — has caused new concerns among veterans that Sessions and the Justice Department could use the VA to identify marijuana users and potentially prosecute them.
When veterans report marijuana use at the VA, that information is reportedly entered into the “non-VA/herbal/Over the Counter medication section” of that patient’s electric medical record.
“I know a lot of guys who won’t talk to VA doctors about their marijuana use now that Sessions is going after cannabis. They say the risk is too great,” Pereyda said.
Even members of Sessions’ own party are calling him out over this.
Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo last week called Sessions’ marijuana policies a “witch hunt.”
He said the move would help drug cartels and illegal cannabis dealers while hurting small businesses operating legally in their states.
“In the 2016 elections, over 70 percent of Florida’s citizens voted to legalize the use of medical marijuana,” Curbelo said. He added the federal government “should not be ignoring state’s rights and the decisions of voters and state legislatures across the country.”
Americans support medical marijuana for vets
In polls, Americans appear to want veterans with PTSD to have access to marijuana.
In a June 2016 Quinnipiac University poll asking if marijuana should be allowed for veterans with PTSD, those surveyed said yes by a 10-1 margin.
“Veterans nationwide recognize cannabis is a good medicine for us. There is no going back,” said Al Byrne, a retired lieutenant in the Navy who served in Vietnam in 1971.
Byrne, an outspoken proponent of marijuana access for veterans, said the herb helps him far more than the prescription medications he was given at the VA.
A nationwide survey by the American Legion showed that 92 percent of all veterans support research into medical marijuana.
The survey showed that more than 1 in 5 military veterans engage in the use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes, which is a higher percentage than the general population.
And 83 percent of respondents said they support legalizing medical cannabis federally.
“The VA is years behind the science and the wishes of the American people on this issue,” Pereyda said.
Pressure on Trump administration
Trump recently signed an executive order expanding mental health services for veterans reentering civilian life.
But the president hasn’t yet responded to the pleas of veterans to support medical marijuana.
According to VA statistics, veterans accounted for 18 percent of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults in 2014, while veterans constituted 8 percent of the U.S. population.
While the suicide and opioid crises of veterans continue to ravage this country, the Trump administration has instead chosen to go after marijuana users.
In the Orlando Sentinel last week, Jose Carlos Belen, an Army combat veteran as well as the founder and CEO of Mission Zero, an organization dedicated to ending veteran suicide, urged the president to do the right thing.
“While medical cannabis won’t solve the veteran-suicide epidemic, compassionate access to cannabis medicine is a key element in coping for many veterans,” Belen wrote.
He added that the administration is “telling veterans like me who have found critical relief through medical cannabis that our lifeline is unworthy of scientific study. Now, we could be at risk of federal reprisals.”
Medical marijuana studies are growing
A growing number of studies show that marijuana helps with several symptoms of PTSD, as well as aiding with sleep, pain, and more.
These studies include the first-ever Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) trial of medical marijuana for PTSD in veterans.
The Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona has a marijuana study under way using only veterans as subjects.
During the past seven years, the institute got the green light from the FDA and DEA.
But now they’re reportedly having a hard time finding enough veterans to enroll in the study.
And the Phoenix VA, whose staff was criticized for lying about veterans’ wait times, isn’t allowed to refer their patients to the study.
Sue Sisley, the Arizona marijuana study’s principal investigator, told Stars and Stripes that the study would be “enhanced significantly” if the Phoenix VA was allowed to refer veteran patients to the trial.
Investigators from the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor VA Center for Clinical Management Research ran a national study of marijuana use among veterans.
Among those who responded to the study, 41 percent said their use was medical. The researchers noted that this percentage is twice as high as is reported by adults in the general population.
Veterans who used cannabis for therapeutic purposes were less likely to abuse alcohol.
They were also less likely to engage in recent heavy episodic alcohol use as compared to those respondents who reported using marijuana for nonmedical purposes.
The authors concluded that medical cannabis use is already common among veterans, “so they are likely to be disproportionately affected by any changes in the legal status of medical and/or nonmedical cannabis use.”
In addition to the studies, the positive anecdotal evidence from the millions of veterans and nonveterans who use marijuana for a variety of ailments is enormous.
Calling out Trump administration
Meanwhile, veterans service organizations, politicians on both sides of the aisle, health advocates, pro-marijuana groups, and newspaper editorial boards in both red and blue states are expressing deep frustration with this administration’s hard line on medical marijuana for veterans.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial board wrote last week that Sessions’ “antiquated notions about marijuana may have made Shulkin skittish about acting without congressional direction.”
The editorial stated that while “no one is asking the agency to casually hand out cannabis,” research by the VA on marijuana’s medicinal value “is sorely needed and shouldn’t be delayed because Shulkin lacks the backbone to have his agency do it.”
VA declines to comment
Meanwhile, when reached for comment about the medical marijuana issue, Curt Cashour, the VA’s press secretary, had little to say to Healthline.
He provided a short quote from Shulkin on the subject from last May, and pointed us to a website that explains the VA’s position on marijuana.
When asked if he would update or elaborate that position, or explain Shulkin’s more recent remarks, Cashour chose not to respond.