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My VA Doctor Shouldn’t Have To Break The Rules To Recommend Medical Marijuana For PTSD (Op-Ed)



“My doc and I were going over my list of antidepressants and antipsychotics when she sighed and sat back from her desk and suggested I try marijuana.”

By Bill Bee

I first tried marijuana in the winter of 2014, and it was the only thing that stopped my nightmares and dark thoughts from my four deployments as a Marine in Afghanistan.

The brain injuries I suffered during my career and in an IED blast in Marjah, Helmand Province, in 2010 meant I had to be supervised while cooking, I struggled to get out of the house and I had constant flashbacks.

I tried it after an appointment with a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) psychiatrist who broke the rules.

For an hour, she made me go through the most traumatic moments of my time as a Marine, laid out a suggested treatment plan and then said: “I really shouldn’t be saying this, but I wish I could prescribe you cannabis.”

I ended up smoking with my neighbor and we sat, laughed and watched TV. I saw an infomercial for blue-light-blocking glasses and thought it was going to change the face of the Earth, so I figured I’d had too much, but it made me relaxed and gave me an escape.

I started lighting up a pipe twenty minutes before bed, to get a peaceful night’s sleep, like I used to get before my first trip to Garmsir.

It worked better than the medication the VA was giving me, and I wasn’t being an angry asshole to my wife, or flying off the handle at the smallest spark.

I dropped some of the long list of prescriptions, and my health started improving. When the VA asked if I was smoking, I never lied. I told my friends and family what I was doing, especially if they chose to stay at my home.

I needed to be more mellow for my family, and I shouldn’t have had to rely on marijuana to make me feel normal, while I was still struggling to get regular help for my traumatic brain injuries.

Even while I was working with the Veterans Benefits Administration, I was being caught up in a backlog and forced to wait days and sometimes weeks to see or even talk to someone.

The federal prohibition preventing VA doctors from treating our disabled veterans by prescribing or even recommending medical cannabis not only shows how broken the system is, but it also has a direct negative impact on those that are asking for help.

When I transitioned to civilian life after a 13-year career in the Marines, I got a job counseling and teaching service members on how to use their VA benefits. During training, I realized what we were being taught was vastly different to the level of treatment we were given.

I enrolled in VA Healthcare shortly after I became a civilian, and I waited. And waited. And waited.

While my application made its way extremely slowly through the bureaucratic cogs, I waited to see a doctor and wasn’t able to be treated for my physical and psychological issues.

When I was finally enrolled and I met my mental healthcare provider, though, I was less than impressed. The primary issue I had with my psychiatrist was the lack of attention paid to my appointments.

I would talk about the most traumatic issues I had experienced in a one-hour session so the doctor could assess the issues and process the rest of the treatment. It’s not a fun experience, but it is necessary.

My primary issue was how many times I was forced to re-explain issues because they weren’t listened to on multiple, previous appointments. I had to explain numerous times that I was hit by an IED in Afghanistan, and not Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

At one point, she interrupted me to ask me about a small man I was hallucinating. I had no clue what the hell she was talking about, as I had experienced full-immersion flashbacks but no hallucination remotely like she asked.

After some discussion, I realized she was referring to my son. Following that episode, I asked for a new psychiatrist.

I will not disclose which doctor I saw that ultimately recommended the most effective treatment I’ve received, because they’re amazing and I would hate to see the VA lose one of the most passionate providers they have for violating a backwards policy.

From my first appointment, it was like a completely different priority of care, where it seemed like I was the focus.

She insisted I bring my wife with me, as she was a vital part of my care.

I liked that, as she was able to learn about the reasons behind why I acted the way I did, helping to identify methods which may mitigate problems in the future, as well as coping techniques.

One thing she said stuck with me, and it would lead to the most effective treatment I ever received.

My doc and I were going over my list of antidepressants and antipsychotics when she sighed and sat back from her desk and suggested I try marijuana.

We sat and discussed the pros and cons of medical cannabis, and she encouraged me to conduct my own research.

At the end of the conversation, she asked that the discussion remain between us, as she wasn’t able to recommend it to anyone because she worked for the VA and it was illegal in North Carolina.

I listened to her advice, and I conducted my own research.

Some was conducted online, and some was conducted in the garage of my neighbor, a retired Marine with some of the same injuries and issues I had sustained.

After weeks of experimentation with microdosing, I finally found the perfect amount I needed to smoke to help kill my nightmares and render me less of an asshole.

While it may not help with my memory issues, the amount of anxiety and rage that was a constant torrent in my head was brought down to a manageable level.

I no longer feared to go anywhere I wasn’t familiar with, and when I did, I wasn’t constantly scanning roof lines for Taliban and double-checking each piece of trash I saw—thinking there could be an IED hidden beneath the bags.

I could actually communicate with strangers for the first time in what seemed like forever.

It should not be this difficult to receive treatment. I shouldn’t have to risk a drug charge just to get one of the few medications that show actual results.

I’m not a criminal and never have been. Outside of some speeding tickets, I take pride in the fact I’ve never broken a law… other than trying to get treatment.

My own doctor chose to risk her job simply by recommending a medication that works. It should not be this way.

Bill Bee is a Marine veteran and the author of the new book, “The Shot: The Harrowing Journey of a Marine in the War on Terror.” 

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