Why Shouldn't War Vets Get Weed for Their Wounds?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops during Operation Desert Storm on March 1, 1991 (JO1 Gawlowicz / Department of Defense / Wikimedia)

Spurred by our collection of stories from readers who used marijuana as a substitute for prescription opioids, another reader writes:

I am a totally and permanently service-connected, disabled Marine veteran with Gulf War Illnesses. I was an infantryman in the first war in Iraq and spent a good deal of time in and around the burning oil fields. I was also dosed with long-term, low-dose nerve agents from the “superplume” of oil smoke and chemical weapons inadvertently made airborne by coalition forces during demolition while I was aboard ship in the Persian Gulf after the ground combat had ended.

After my four years of active duty I attended college and earned a civil engineering degree. I worked for a few years as a consulting civil engineer for a Fortune 500 engineering firm until the symptoms of my illnesses became too much for me to continue gainful employment as a civil engineer.

My medical care as an engineer was very good, since I had very good private insurance—until I could no longer work. By that point, I had been awarded a 50-percent disability rating and the VA stepped in to cover my treatment. As my illnesses progressed, I became less and less active and more and more dependent upon the 13 different pharmaceutical medications and three pharmaceutical inhalers the VA doctors prescribed to me for daily use. My symptoms/illnesses used to include:

  • Widespread chronic muscular and joint pain.
    • Diagnosed as fibromyalgia for lack of a better explanation.
  • Chronic migraine headaches.
    • Two or more every week, without fail.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
    • Daily diarrhea without fail, cramps, and inconsistent schedule.
  • Asthma
    • Lung capacity reduced over 50 percent from pre-enlistment screening.
  • PTSD
    • Mild case, not constant symptomology, only mildly affects daily life.

I still have all of these symptoms/illnesses. But several years ago, a friend of mine from our time together in the Marines shared his secret for recovering from Gulf War Illnesses. This veteran had been so sick on our way back to the States that he was flown from a hospital ship to Germany then back to our unit in California once he was well after a couple weeks.

His secret and mine—to share with all who will listen—is FECO, or Full Extract Cannabis Oil. This is close to an essential oil of cannabis and is much more highly concentrated with a wide range of cannabinoids and terpenes, as well as flavonoids, than any other form of cannabis available.

FECO is made using the highest proof ethanol as possible. I use 95 percent (190 proof) Everclear available in Washington state, where the cannabis is also legal. (There are plenty of methods to make FECO, but the one I most recommend is from Skunk Pharma Research, LLC; they are actual scientists perfecting the medicinal cannabis extract processes.) FECO is produced using high-proof ethyl alcohol, so no microbiological contaminants remain in the finished product. Also, ethyl alcohol is relatively easy to distill from the final FECO, so the medical cannabis consumer doesn’t have to worry about alcohol.

By making and using FECO, I have reduced my daily prescription dose from 13 pills and three inhalers to two pills and one rescue inhaler I use infrequently. I no longer take ANY prescription pain medicine, nor muscle relaxers or sleep aids.

I was certain my working life was over, but I have started a consulting business again. I feel better than I have in more than a decade. I am working at becoming active and healthy enough to earn enough money to no longer qualify for Social Security Disability.

I don’t sit around smoking cannabis all day. I can mix FECO as a high-strength tincture, inject it into gel caps, mix it with a hot beverage, or vaporize it in cartridge form. I can cook with FECO and eat it directly or even make suppositories, as some FECO acolytes have begun to do. This truly is a “wonder drug,” and the hundreds or thousands of different cannabis strains all produce slightly different FECO but never a “bad” batch!

For more on military vets using cannabis to help cope with their lives stateside, the Dallas Observer had a long feature last month on a growing campaign in the Lone Star State to get vets legal access:

More than 1,600 Texas veterans have stepped out of the shadows to talk about their marijuana use with legislators, the media and anyone else who’ll listen to their harrowing tales of painkiller addiction and suicide. They’re the vanguard of the medical marijuana lobbying effort that’s making battle plans to bring their cause to Texas lawmakers this legislative session. They say they’re tired of being considered criminals when they have no choice but to use marijuana for service-related injuries because the alternatives—painkillers and psychotropic drugs—are killing too many of them.

They’ve come together as part of Operation Trapped, a veteran lobbying movement with connections to two other marijuana lobbying groups, Texas NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project. They’re supporting passage of state Sen. Jose Menendez’s SB 269, which seeks to expand the Texas Compassionate Use Act and allow any Texas resident with a doctor’s recommendation access to medical marijuana.

Menendez, a San Antonio Democrat, tried to pass a similar bill in the 2015 legislative session, but it never made it out of the Senate’s Health & Human Services Committee. Instead legislators passed the Texas Compassionate Use Act. It allows patients with a rare form of epilepsy access to a cannabis oil stripped mostly of the chemical compound THC, which gets users high. The act leaves out more than 1.7 million Texans who could benefit from medical marijuana. Menendez wants to increase the number of medical conditions that qualify for medical marijuana and allow patients access to the whole plant, not just low-THC oil. (That’s an important point for medical marijuana advocates, who contend that marijuana contains several compounds that are beneficial in treating a variety of ailments.)

Up north in Canada, where marijuana laws are much more advanced than those in the U.S., a Globe and Mail story from August 2016 details an effort to get oils covered for vets:

Despite a Supreme Court of Canada decision that gives sick Canadians the right to use medical cannabis oils, Ottawa is reimbursing the country’s veterans for dried pot only, potentially pushing them to less healthy options of smoking or vaporizing the drug. That has prompted a group of commercial medical marijuana growers to urge Ottawa to expand medical marijuana coverage for former soldiers—a small but lucrative patient base for Canada’s two dozen licensed producers—to include the ingestible oils.

More than 1,700 veterans have access to the largest publicly funded medical marijuana plan in the country, but they are covered only for the plant’s dried flower. They have to use their own money for the oils. Licensed growers started selling the oils last year after the Supreme Court ruled Health Canada was putting sick people at risk of cancer and bronchial infections by sanctioning only dried buds.

For a somewhat dated but still compelling “case for treating PTSD in veterans with marijuana,” see this Atlantic piece from 2012 by Martin Mulcahey:

If anecdotal evidence were the standard, acceptance of marijuana’s calming properties among psychologically scarred soldiers would be a topic relegated to the past. Statistical evidence to support that hypothesis could be petitioned from the state of New Mexico, where medical marijuana is legally prescribed for PTSD. The state’s number one diagnosis for a medical marijuana license, a noteworthy 27 percent of the total, lists PTSD as the qualifying criteria for issuance. That statistic comes as no surprise to Sisley, but she stresses circumstantial evidence is not enough to sway the wide range of government agencies she deals with. “We really believe science should supersede politics,” she said. “This illness needs to be treated in a multidisciplinary way. Drugs like Zoloft and Paxil have proven entirely inadequate.”

An Atlantic reader, Paul Culkin, wrote at the time:

On the battlefield, if something works—a tactic, a piece of equipment, a weapon—you use it, even when someone is on the radio telling you it won’t work. I still find it funny how the American public would find it abhorrent to know that we were withholding weapons or equipment from our servicemembers that could save their lives. Yet we have potential relief [for PTSD through marijuana] for not only servicemembers but for their families that have to suffer along with them, and the Federal government continues to block it.

I have chosen along with fellow combat veterans here in my community to not waste away in the bar at the VFW and the Foreign Legion like a lot of other vets I have seen. Alcohol is really the worst thing for PTSD. With alcohol I can escape reality forever, my life falling apart before my eyes, turning into a monster. Medical cannabis can be a temporary relief, but it doesn’t allow me to turn away from reality forever. And it’s not addictive like alcohol or prescription narcotics. It doesn’t hurt your lungs, since it can be made into an edible form.

I don’t believe cannabis is the single antidote in dealing with PTSD. I firmly believe that doctors are disregarding diet and exercise, so basically it is up to us, the vets, to do what we did in the field: Take care of ourselves and spread knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work, because that is all we have.