WASHINGTON — After flying helicopters in Vietnam for 30 months, Perry Parks couldn’t stop the panicked dreams.
“I was flying through wires all the time and I never hit the wire,” said Parks, 71, a retired military commander from Rockingham, N.C. “I’m a helicopter pilot, so wires scare the hell out of you.”
Parks, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, said he took sleeping pills for years after he retired. Then he found a more satisfying alternative: two or three bong hits at least three times a day.
“I don’t have the dreams anymore,” he said.
Faced with a skyrocketing suicide rate in their ranks, many of the nation’s veterans hope that marijuana will be their salve. Federal officials and veterans groups estimate that nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veterans and 20 percent of returning service members from Iraq and Afghanistan are grappling with PTSD.
Veterans such as Parks increasingly are taking their case to statehouses and to Capitol Hill, where they plan to lobby members of Congress next Monday.
They scored a win in March when federal officials ended a three-year fight with a University of Arizona research team, agreeing to provide government-grown pot from Mississippi for a PTSD study. Only days before the study won approval, organizers had planned to mobilize veterans for a protest in Washington.
“Truthfully, it’s the activism from veterans all around this country that’s really moved this forward,” said Suzanne Sisley, a clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and psychiatry at the University of Arizona’s medical school. She’ll lead the study, which calls for giving 50 veterans the equivalent of two joints per day.
Sisley said veterans were helping to overcome opposition from those who feared pot research because they thought it would lead to legalization.
“They think that marijuana research is going to prove that this drug is safe and effective, and they don’t want that,” she said of opponents to the research. “They don’t want any of that data to ever see the light of day. So they’re going to fight it at every turn.”
Parks said he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2002, five years after first seeing a psychiatrist who eventually told him he had all the symptoms. In addition to dealing with nightmares and chronic back pain, he said he was easily startled and would “jerk big time” at any noise.
“A lot of things like that, I just didn’t understand,” he said. “I’m in excellent shape — that’s what always bothered me: How can you be disabled if you can ride on a Jet Ski?”
Parks may have found his relief, but he’s violating federal and state law. The federal government’s official position is that marijuana, as a Schedule I substance, has no medical value. And the North Carolina Legislature most recently rejected medical marijuana in 2013.
While thousands of Americans go to jail each year for violating marijuana laws, Parks is confident he won’t get arrested.
“I’m a white, successful person; they don’t mess with people like me,” said Parks, a former president of the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network.
When an officer at the North Carolina Statehouse once complained that he smelled pot upon Parks’ arrival, Parks admitted that he had smoked and suggested that he be arrested, figuring it would produce a good public spectacle. Parks said the officer told him: “You’re not going to use law enforcement to further your efforts.”
Reflecting on the incident later, Parks said it made him cry: “If I had been black or young or an immigrant or a Mexican, I would have been spread-eagle on the floor.”
According to the advocacy group Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, it’s legal to smoke marijuana for PTSD in 11 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Twenty states have passed medical marijuana laws, but some of them don’t cover PTSD.
Al Byrne, a Navy veteran with PTSD who’s a co-founder of a Virginia nonprofit group called Patients Out of Time that promotes therapeutic uses of marijuana, said the federal government faced “a conundrum” after sending conflicting messages. Notably, he said, the Veterans Affairs Department allows patients treated at its facilities to use medical marijuana so long as it’s legal in the states where they live.
“I call it medical treatment by geography: You can live in the wrong ZIP code to get treatment from your government, even though you’re a veteran and you’ve been wounded,” Byrne said.
In Washington state, Rick Rosio, a medical marijuana provider, said the country needed to move on beyond the political debates. He’s aiming to sign up 100,000 veterans in a program he’s developed that he calls “compassionate care.” It would help them gain access to both marijuana and better job opportunities, he said. Rosio said cannabis therapy could help many of the veterans reduce their dependency on opiates.
“Politics should not be played with veterans’ suffering,” said Rosio, of Spokane, who was sentenced last year to five years of probation on a felony charge of growing more than 50 pot plants. “And without question the veterans carry a mighty voice.”
Veterans groups predict that medical marijuana will become available soon in more states, including Florida, where a vote is set for November.
They say they’ve found a key ally in pushing their message: CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, who previously opposed medical marijuana, has done two in-depth reports on the issue. In the first one, which aired last year, Gupta apologized for once dismissing the potential of medical marijuana. In the second one, which aired last month, he touted the benefits of marijuana for epilepsy patients who’d moved to Colorado to get the drug.
“When it got on CNN, finally, the rest of the public was able to catch up,” said Michael Krawitz, an Air Force veteran who heads Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access in Elliston, Va.
Sisley said her project won approval only days after Gupta’s documentary touched off a flurry of interest: “You can’t ignore the time sequence here.”
In many states, however, medical marijuana remains a tough sell.
“You’ve got to look at the bottom line: Every major medical association does not believe that there’s such a thing right now as medical marijuana — it’s a falsehood, it doesn’t exist,” Republican state Rep. Robert Benvenuti of Lexington, Ky., said in an interview.
Benvenuti, a leading opponent of a medical marijuana bill that stalled in Kentucky this year, said the issue was best left to federal regulators. He said more research was needed, with many psychiatrists thinking that smoking marijuana could worsen PTSD, leading to paranoia and isolation. And he said it would be “arrogant and irresponsible and reckless for a handful of legislators to decide what a medicine is.”
Byrne said marijuana clearly was medicine. And with government statistics showing 22 veterans committing suicide each day, he said: “This is a war we’re in.”
Many veterans say they’re in a Catch-22: Federal officials admit they’ve done relatively little to fund pot research projects looking for benefits, following their mandate to focus on the abuse of and addiction to an illegal drug.
“It’s an outrageous situation, where the federal government says that you can’t have access to cannabis as a medicine because it’s totally untested, and then you try to study it and they say you can’t because it’s illegal,” Krawitz said. “They got away with that for a very long time.”
Krawitz smokes pot for chronic pain after a motorcycle accident in Guam nearly killed him, forcing him to undergo 13 operations.
After spending 30 years in the military, Parks has become a fierce advocate for his cause, personally lobbying more than 50 legislators in his home state and meeting and getting photographed with President Barack Obama when the president visited Winston-Salem in 2010.
He called himself a born-again Christian who goes to church three times a week but said he’d chosen “to disobey man’s law” by smoking pot. He hopes that the Arizona study will help more veterans, though he’s shocked that it took years to get it approved.
“If there’s any chance that it could be a positive influence, how could we wait this long?” Parks asked. “How long have we got to wait?”