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Nonprofit provides free medical marijuana to California vets

By RYAN MASTERS | Santa Cruz Sentinel | Published: August 21, 2016

LIVE OAK, Calif. (Tribune News Service) -- By 6 p.m. Monday, more than 100 U.S. veterans had lined up in the back parking lot of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 7263.

The group consisted of men and women from all branches and eras of the military. They chatted amiably or rested in folding camping chairs, waiting for an organization called the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance to give them a brown paper bag filled with medicine.

"Plants, not pills," said Aaron Newsom, co-founder and vice president of Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, as he stood at the head of the line and greeted many of the former military personnel warmly. "That's our motto -- at least that's one of our mottos."

Newsom, who served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2008, also stands at the front lines of a new war. This war does not involve bullets or bombs, but is just as deadly.

About 60 percent of those returning from deployments in the Middle East, and 50 percent of older veterans suffer from chronic pain, according to Veterans Affairs officials.

About 13 percent of all veterans taking opioids -- roughly 68,000 people -- have been classified as suffering from "opioid use disorder," or addiction.

While the per capita numbers for veterans are higher, the problem is not isolated to military personnel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called U.S. abuse of prescription narcotics the worst drug addiction epidemic in the country's history. In fact, the organization reports the number of overdose deaths is now greater than those of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined.

Newsom and Veterans Alliance co-founder Jason Sweatt, 40, are not just leaders in the burgeoning medical marijuana industry, they also use the medicine to treat their own combat-inflicted PTSD.

"What veterans need, what everyone needs, is alternatives to prescription medications. Not just narcotics, but also the wide range of antidepressants and their negative side effects," Newsom said.

So on the first and third Monday of each month, the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance meets behind the VFW building in Live Oak to provide just such an alternative to an army of veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.

To ensure that Santa Cruz County military veterans receive the medical marijuana they need, the Veterans Alliance has developed a unique business model. They grow the marijuana, donate a percentage of the yield to medical card-holding members for free and then sell the remainder to general medical cannabis dispensaries to fund what Newsom calls "the mission."

"I've had nine surgeries in the last six years," said Timote Peterson, 64, who served in the Army from 1970 to 1972. "Medical marijuana is far preferable to where I was a few years ago. These guys have really helped me out."

Peterson said he was addicted to pain medication from 2003 to 2012 and described his detoxification from OxyContin as "worse than kicking heroin."

"Medical marijuana is not perfect. It isn't that effective for really acute pain, but it is a damn sight better than most the other stuff they prescribe to you," Peterson said.

Unfortunately, no controlled studies have been conducted to evaluate the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana for PTSD, according to Marcel Bonn-Miller, a principal investigator at the Department of Veterans Affair's Substance and Anxiety Intervention Laboratory in Menlo Park.

In an effort to better understand the effects of medical marijuana on PTSD symptoms, Bonn-Miller and his team have donated their time and resources to perform a six-month study of members of the Veterans Alliance.

"We're using written questionnaires to assess their PTSD and sleep over time. We're also having the marijuana that the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance distributes tested by SC Labs," Bonn-Miller said.

Yet medical marijuana is only one aspect of the Veterans Alliance's mission. The organization is also a community and support network for veterans.

"We want to create a place for veterans to speak about their combat experiences and the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis, specifically as it relates to the traumas of war," said Newsom. "Veterans commit suicide, often due to chronic pain, at the rate of nearly two dozen a day. That's unacceptable."

(c) 2016 the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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