Dustin Paul spends much of his time skirting the Roseburg city limits.
The 39-year-old Army veteran regularly escapes to either the North Umpqua River or the Rogue River, he said, to avoid triggering the post-traumatic stress disorder he incurred from his time fighting in the Middle East. Paul served in some of the harrying battles in Kuwait, where combat often took place within city limits.
“My fight was in town,” Paul said. “It wasn’t desert warfare — it was all urban, in the city with people driving in cars and being around people. Everything that normal life is, is all my triggers.”
In Douglas County, there are more than 13,000 veterans, and many of them endure the symptoms of PTSD. Paul sought treatment through an array of prescription drug cocktails aimed to keep his anxiety and depression in check. However, the side effects of nausea and lethargy became more trouble than they were worth. At one point, he said he blacked out in a hospital bathroom, fell over and cut his eye.
“I was really motivated to not be taking any of those pills anymore,” Paul said.
PTSD is treatable with medical marijuana, though — despite marijuana use now being legal in Oregon — several cities and counties are working to restrict recreational sales. Though medical marijuana is also legal, veterans continue to fret over its legality on a federal level. In Colorado, PTSD sufferers filed a lawsuit against the state’s Board of Health after it refused to list PTSD as an ailment that is able to be treated with medical marijuana, relegating potential patients to use recreational marijuana, which is taxed at a higher rate, thereby costing the veterans more money.
Paul served in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan until his military career ended in 2006. He and a group of veterans returned home and struggled to deal with post-combat life. Though he and others used marijuana before their military careers, they weren’t regular smokers. It wasn’t until the antidepressants and antianxiety pills became more trouble than they were worth that marijuana became a viable alternative.
“Over the course of three years, I got off my pills,” Paul said. “They often made me feel sick whether I took them or not. It was like ‘These aren’t helping me one way or the other.’”
However, veterans in Douglas County are unable to receive medical marijuana from one of their most trusted health care providers: the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center. As a federal agency, the VA is regulated by federal laws and thus physicians cannot suggest medical marijuana to patients. Instead, the doctors offer various therapies to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Doing so is a more holistic approach, the VA claims, because both prescription drugs and things like marijuana and alcohol only alleviate the symptoms — they don’t address the underlying causes.
“(Drugs are) an effective way of stopping feelings. It works — there’s just a cost to it,” said Kathryn Dailey, a social worker for the VA. “Stopping all your anxiety and unpleasant feelings, you often stop your pleasant ones, too, and cut yourself off from everybody. With alcohol and other things, there’s a cost to relationships and health.”
Dailey said she hasn’t seen any changes in the number of veterans seeking treatment at the VA for PTSD in her six years working there. Even as marijuana becomes legal in more states, many veterans still seek the holistic treatments the VA offers.
Paul, on the other hand, said he wishes it was a smooth relationship all around.
“It seems the tide has shifted, but the stigma hasn’t been lifted. Being a medical marijuana user, I wish they would just get behind it and help,” Paul said.
Local leaders, however, must weigh the preferences of their constituents, and the majority of Douglas County voters voted against the legalization of marijuana. Veterans are also split in their opinions about marijuana, said John McDonald, the president of the Douglas County Veterans Forum and a Roseburg city councilor. Many vets are dead-set against medical marijuana, even with a vocal group of veterans supporting it.
“One of my biggest concerns on the council is that people will use recreational marijuana as a form of self-medication,” McDonald said. “At least with a medical marijuana card they have to see a doctor. I can understand a mature adult smoking it because they’re trying to enjoy it, but with mental health issues the last thing you want to do is introduce a substance, even alcohol, into that mix without consulting a doctor.”
By Troy Brynelson - NRToday/Aug. 28, 2015