The Department of Veterans Affairs prescribes Joshua Lee a lot of pills – 9,828 a year by his count.
His medical record shows Lee, who attained the rank sergeant in the Missouri National Guard before a convoy attack in Afghanistan led to his medical retirement, has received a raft of opioid painkillers, muscle relaxants and psychotropic drugs from the government.
He struggles with back and knee injuries, fibromyalgia, arthritis and post traumatic stress disorder. But Lee, 33, says the drugs have not helped him get better. Instead, he said, he’s become addicted, particularly to one of the drugs prescribed by VA doctors.
“I am absolutely addicted to tramadol and have gone through some of the worst withdrawal symptoms I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
Despite the deluge of medication, his pain endures. Chiropractic care and other non-pharmacological services, which the VA trumpets, have been difficult to access.
Sometimes he’s felt his “only hope was to eventually take stronger and stronger opiates. That’s my only hope,” he joked.
Then, in March, Lee tried something different. He and his wife used the occasion of their 15th wedding anniversary to drive to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in one of 29 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is now legal.
“I hit up the recreational dispensary, bought 4 ounces of weed, edibles and topicals,” he said. “I needed to figure out what it would take to replace these meds.”
After four days, he said, his mind had cleared and the pain had subsided.
When he returned home to Holts Summit, Missouri, he wanted to send a message. So he bought the entire stock of Smarties from a local candy shop, counted out 9,828 and capped them in plastic. He snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook with a cry for help and a call for action.
The picture has been shared more than 1,500 times.
Reached for a response, VA spokesman James Hutton, said there was no way the agency could prescribe marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law. But the VA has been quietly researching marijuana’s viability as a treatment. In 2014, a team of VA researchers published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found opiate overdose rates were much lower in states which allowed medical cannabis. Researchers found the longer the medical marijuana law had been in effect, the stronger the correlation.
On the other hand, the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is run by the VA, reports that “the belief that marijuana can be used to treat PTSD is limited to anecdotal reports from individuals with PTSD who say that the drug helps with their symptoms.”
While federal law forbids the VA from prescribing, dispensing or recommending marijuana, VA spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay said the agency’s “health care providers do not report use of medical marijuana to law enforcement or agencies.”
Veterans who tell their doctor about their “their personal use are provided information to reduce unintentional consequences such as drug interactions,” Mojay added.
Lee said his VA doctors were helpful in telling him which prescriptions to reduce and which to stay on during his trip to Colorado. The VA has also become more restrictive in its provision of narcotics in response to congressional pressure. The number of veterans receiving prescription opiates from the VA has declined by more than 170,000 since 2013.
But Lee wants a bigger change. He wants federal law to change. Failing that, he’d like Missouri to become the 30th state where medical marijuana is legal.