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Veterans with PTSD call for medical marijuana expansion

By JAN HEFLER | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: May 10, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Years after he was exposed to Agent Orange in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, Bob Evans was prescribed morphine to kill his excruciating pain. He lived mostly in a stupor until early last year, when he began weaning himself off the addictive drug.

A few months later, Evans, 66, surprised his family and friends by dancing with his daughter, Amanda, at her wedding.

"I feel so much better," Evans said in an interview last month in the Mount Laurel home he shares with his wife, Donna.

The dramatic change, he said, came about after he replaced the morphine with two ounces of pungent medical marijuana buds he bought each month from a dispensary in Woodbridge.

It was a battle, he said, to enroll in the state's restrictive marijuana program and to find $12,000 in cash for the $500-an-ounce drug and the multiple doctor visits required to stay enrolled throughout 2014.

Other veterans, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, have been excluded from the program, though some reports have found marijuana may ease the associated panic attacks, flashbacks, insomnia, and pain.

The state allows marijuana to be sold only to those with about a dozen qualifying ailments, including terminal cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, glaucoma, and seizure disorders.

On Thursday, the state Senate introduced a bill that would add PTSD to the list. In March, the Assembly passed a similar bill with a bipartisan vote.

"Marijuana saved my life," said Don Karpowich, an Air Force special operations veteran diagnosed with PTSD last year — three decades after he found the bodies of seven "brothers" from his team and 11 other passengers in a C-130 plane that had crashed into a mountain near Zaragoza, Spain.

The men were on a nighttime paratrooper training mission that snowy night in 1984, he said, while he and another member of the team were on the ground setting up.

During his decade in the service, he had gone on hundreds of parachute and scuba-diving missions as part of an elite, little-known "combat controller" unit with the Air Force. When he was discharged, he was classified as disabled because of back and leg injuries suffered during his service.

"For 30 years, I didn't speak to anybody about it," Karpowich, 56, a former staff sergeant, said of the crash while sitting in his Morristown apartment in North Jersey. But his repressed memories surfaced, and the image of the dead men sitting in the crumpled aircraft was "forever" he said.

He began drinking heavily and picking fights and soon realized he was on the path to taking his own life. His wife, Ines, told him to get therapy or she would leave.

"He was like a homeless person, sleeping on benches," Ines said.

PTSD has been linked to a suicide rate that claims 22 veterans' lives every day nationwide.

Karpowich said he escaped that fate because he sought therapy, obtained a prescription for anti-anxiety medicine, got a caring service dog named Riley, and bought marijuana on the black market to help him cope.

"It's better than going out on the street and getting drunk every day," he said.

But he would rather buy the marijuana legally.

"I feel like I'm a criminal . . . but I'm alive because of pot," Karpowich said.

He plans to visit the graves of all seven comrades he lost in the training mission and is growing a beard as a daily reminder to finish paying his respects.

Over the last five weeks, Karpowich has joined the weekly protests in front of the Statehouse in Trenton staged by the nonprofit Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey.

On Thursday, he held up a sign to draw attention to the shortcomings of the program and spoke to legislators who passed by. "I shook their hands and introduced myself as a disabled veteran and then made my point," he said.

The coalition is ratcheting up its efforts to get the legislation passed. But some advocates in the group say Gov. Christie likely won't approve the bill. Christie has said that he believes the program is adequate and that proposals to expand the program are disguised attempts to make marijuana available to those who just want to get high.

Jim Miller, a coalition member who organizes the Thursday protests, said Christie's remarks were insensitive. He said the program was failing people who are suffering and need medical marijuana to get relief.

Last year, the Christie administration rejected the coalition's petition to consider PTSD as a condition. The state Department of Health created a committee recently to study the issue and decide which conditions should be added, if any. But the final say is up to the health commissioner.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), an author of the five-year-old medical marijuana law, is pushing for the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use, saying it may be futile to try to fix a medical marijuana program that he says is plagued by problems and lacks the governor's support. Scutari has said that he anticipates it will take time to build support for full legalization and that little else will be done until after Christie, a Republican, leaves office.

Evans, who suffers from diabetic neuropathy and several other afflictions linked to Agent Orange, remembered how happy he was when Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, legalized medical marijuana in January 2010, just before leaving office.

Though Christie expressed displeasure with the law he inherited, Evans said he was surprised that he would have to wait four years to obtain a drug that would drastically change his life. Approvals the dispensaries needed to open were delayed and the Health Department required doctors and patients to register for the program. Then, Evans said, he had to call numerous doctors before he found one willing to prescribe marijuana.

"The receptionists were rude," he said, and had questioned his need to use marijuana. After he finally found a doctor who registered with the program, he had to wait six months to prove he was a "bona fide patient" before the doctor would give him a prescription. He said the doctor also required him to come for a visit every three months and to pay about $100 in cash each time.

"It was no short process, and it was costly," Evans said.

But Donna Evans said she was glad they didn't give up.

"I didn't believe the change in him," she said.

She said the morphine "had robbed him of his personality," but the marijuana let it return, and helped him cope with the nausea and vomiting from the morphine withdrawal. She said he became coherent and less forgetful.

"People started asking me, 'What happened to Bob? He seems so much better,' " she said, beaming as she showed off a picture of the family at their daughter's Shore wedding. But it's a shame the marijuana is "not available to other people who might really need it," she said.

jhefler@phillynews.com

©2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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Medical marijuana.
ANTHONY SOUFFLE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT

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