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After Staff Sargent Mike Whiter returned home from serving his country, he tried to kill himself three times.
Whiter served in the US Marines for 11 years, including combat tours in Kosovo and Iraq. After his medical discharge, Whiter sought help from the Veterans Administration for his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as his physical injuries.
“They put me on 36 different medications in 6 years,” recalls Whiter. “I was on methadone and morphine, benzos, klonopin, xanax, SSRIs…You name a drug, I’ve been on it. I couldn’t sleep, I was having nightmares, I couldn’t leave my house – I was afraid to leave my house.”
Whiter believes that prescription drugs, particularly SSRIs, are contributing to veteran suicides. “SSRIs have suicide listed as a side effect,” Whiter explains. “And they’re giving these pills to people who are already suicidal.”
According to a study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs in February of 2013, 22 veterans take their own lives every day – one suicide every 65 minutes. A 2013 survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America showed that 30% of service members have considered or attempted suicide, and 45% reported that they know an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide. In recent years, there have been significantly more US veteran and military deaths by suicide than in combat.
HOPE FOR VETERANS
Mike Whiter’s life today is very different than it was a few years ago. After learning about medical marijuana and PTSD on the Discovery Channel, Whiter believed it might help him.
Since he started using marijuana, Whiter has been able to stop taking all of his prescription medications. No more sleepless nights, no more flashbacks, no more isolation in his home – in fact, Whiter is now the co-director of Philadelphia NORML and the founder of Pennsylvania Veterans for Medical Marijuana. He has been a featured speaker at numerous public events and rallies, unimaginable during the time he suffered from crippling social anxiety due to his PTSD.
“Marijuana saved my life,” Whiter says. “And when I say that, I’m not exaggerating at all. Those medications would have killed me if I hadn’t taken my own life first. The medications that the VA prescribes are killing veterans.”
In addition to relieving his PTSD symptoms, Whiter credits marijuana for enabling him to survive the trauma of withdrawal from numerous medications. “Marijuana got me through opiate withdrawal, it got me through benzo withdrawal, and it got me through SSRI withdrawal,” he recalls. “It’s my medicine.”
Whiter’s experience is reflected in the results of a 2012 study of suicide rates in medical marijuana states. From the study:
Using state-level data for the period 1990 through 2007, we estimate the effect of legalizing medical marijuana on suicide rates. Our results suggest that the passage of a medical marijuana law is associated with an almost 5 percent reduction in the total suicide rate, an 11 percent reduction in the suicide rate of 20- through 29-year-old males, and a 9 percent reduction in the suicide rate of 30- through 39-year-old males.
We conclude that the legalization of medical marijuana leads to an improvement in the psychological wellbeing of young adult males, an improvement that is reflected in fewer suicides.
Sadly, many veterans still do not have the opportunity to use medical marijuana legally. Currently, PTSD is a qualifying condition in only 7 of the 20 US states with medical marijuana programs. This means that in 43 states, veterans who use marijuana to combat PTSD are considered criminals.
Even veterans who qualify in their states often face conflicts between their medical marijuana use and their treatment at VA hospitals. A 2010 directive issued by the US Veterans Administration changed VA rules to allow medical marijuana use for veterans who are registered medical marijuana patients. However, many VA hospitals have reportedly chosen to ignore the directive, citing that federal law classifying cannabis as an illegal Schedule I substance overrides VA and state policies. As a result, even veterans who are state-legal medical marijuana patients are routinely turned away from VA hospitals and their medications are denied if they test positive for marijuana use.
But in spite of conflicting policies, ambiguous legalities, and sobering statistics, there is hope: in many states, organizations like Pennsylvania Veterans for Medical Marijuana are actively lobbying for change. In the past few years, lobbying efforts have led to amendments to include PTSD as a qualifying condition in medical states including New Mexico, Oregon, and Maine. But with every passing day, more veterans are taking their own lives.
“A lot of people don’t know about this, and that’s why it’s so important to me to speak. As hard as it is for me to do this, I do it because I know it helps other people,” says Whiter. “I’ve had veterans come up to me and tell me that they’ve done the same thing but they’re afraid to speak out about it.”
Many advocates, including Whiter, believe that full legalization of marijuana is the only sure way to effectively change policy. Whiter encourages veterans across the country to contact him to learn ways to spread the word.
“It’s just a plant,” sighs Whiter. “It should be legalized. It saves lives.”