During a tour in Iraq, Infantryman Jeremy Sparks’s Army convoy was driving over a bridge when the entire structure collapsed.
“We just dropped, it was like something out of a cartoon,” Sparks said.
The 40-year-old veteran was a rear gunner on a Stryker military vehicle, standing up out of a back hatch when the vehicle careened into the sandy riverbed below. The impact of the fall threw him to the back of the Stryker, giving him such severe whiplash that it herniated two of the major nerves in his neck.
At one point, Sparks took over 20 medications to treat the pain from the nerve damage, as well as symptoms from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Sparks has found the best thing to calm his pain and memories of war is marijuana.
Even though therapeutic cannabis is legal in New Hampshire, Sparks and many other veterans face significant hurdles to lawfully obtain it.
Because most veterans get their health care through the federal Veteran’s Administration, their doctors cannot legally recommend they seek medical marijuana, nor certify conditions that would allow them to qualify for a therapeutic cannabis registry card.
“It is always illegal under federal law for a veteran to utilize marijuana, regardless of whether there is a state law allowing for use of marijuana,” VA policy states. “As a result, VA remains consistent whether a veteran is found to have used marijuana through a state-sponsored program or not.”
However, veterans using marijuana cannot not be denied VA services, after a 2011 policy directive was passed. Before that, marijuana users risked being kicked out of the program.
Patients who qualify under New Hampshire’s therapeutic cannabis program need to be certified by a physician they’ve seen for at least three months, which means veterans need to pay out of pocket to see a doctor outside the VA system.
Marijuana Policy Project New Hampshire Director Matt Simon said he’s heard from several veterans “that’s it’s not worth the bother, not worth the expense.”
“I think most veterans go to the VA and that’s their primary source of health care,” Simon added.
In Lebanon, disabled Navy veteran Brian Cardinale got a rude awakening when three police officers showed up at the door of his apartment, saying they had gotten an anonymous tip about drug activity. A search turned up a small amount of marijuana Cardinale and his longtime girlfriend Lorraine Sevigny smoke for medical conditions.
The incident resulted in a $500 misdemeanor fine each and an eviction notice from the couple’s landlord. New Hampshire Legal Assistance ultimately helped them stay in their apartment.
Cardinale suffers from multiple sclerosis, while Sevigny still deals with the effects of a traumatic brain injury from a car crash decades ago.
The Lebanon veteran is on 17 different medications – half the top of his bureau is covered in pill bottles.
Even though Cardinale’s MS leaves him with searing pain along the left side of his body, he says marijuana helps most in dealing with the side effects from all of his other pills.
“It literally helps me think straight. That’s the main thing,” he said.
Cardinale said patients aren’t the only ones frustrated with the system.
“My doctors at the VA, especially my psychiatrist, would love to be able to write me a prescription, but they just can’t,” he said.
Cardinale said he would like to be able to obtain cannabis legally, but under the current rules it would be too expensive for him to get a new doctor and enroll in the state’s program.
Until then, he’s going to continue to get it in the same way he has – through a small group of local veterans who grow it for each other. Cardinale said he no longer uses the drug at his apartment, afraid of drawing more attention from police.
“The scheduling needs to be changed at the federal level and the state level,” he said. “It’s not a narcotic, it’s an organic plant. What they need to do is concentrate on those drugs and leave the marijuana alone.”
Epsom attorney Paul Twomey represented Cardinale and Sevigny throughout their legal proceedings.
Twomey said he believes veterans should be able to have an outside doctor review their medical records and certify them for a therapeutic cannabis card in one visit – rather than the three month relationship with a provider that’s currently mandated.
If such a change in the law were to occur, it would have to go through the New Hampshire legislature first.
But one doctor on the state’s Therapeutic Cannabis Advisory Council said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea.
“That gets to the question of proper health care,” said Dr. Stuart Glassman of Concord. “You’re not even seeing anyone and you’re making recommendations.”
Glassman said that system is too risky for health providers that are liable for their patients.
“It would have to be disussed in a wider forum (with) nurse practitioners and physicians,” he said.
Trouble within the system
Tibetan prayer flags flapped in the breeze on Sparks’ porch in Effingham on a recent fall day. Next to the dream catchers and Buddha statues on his living room wall was a shelf filled with Sparks’ military badges and medals.
Sparks, who walks with a limp from his injury, says he likes the tranquility at the end of a dirt road with 17 acres of woods surrounding his house.
He is one of the few veterans who was able to successfully get certified for therapeutic cannabis. But it was short-lived. His medical marijuana I.D. was revoked six months after he got it, for reasons he’s still not sure about.
Late last month, Sparks received a letter from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services Therapeutic Cannabis program saying they “received notice from your certifying medical provider that you should discontinue the use of cannabis.”
For years, cannabis was the only thing that gave him relief.
After six years active duty and two tours in Iraq, he was one of the many veterans suffering from PTSD, suffering from nighttime panic attacks and unable to shake images of himself holding an Army buddy with shrapnel hanging out of his head after their base was mortared by enemy forces.
He said Army doctors responded by putting him on a cocktail of prescription drugs including anti-psychotics, tranquilizers for sleep and opioids for pain. Doctors directed him to take three 30 milligram OxyContin pills per day, with faster-acting Percocets on top of that.
“We became guinea pigs,” Sparks said “I was probably a lot better off before the Army started putting me on all kinds of meds. I became a zombie.”
He is convinced opioids made his pain worse and the deluge of medications increased his nighttime panic attacks.
He says smoking marijuana has allowed him to wean himself off his other medications, including opioids.
“I start smoking cannabis and I can eat,” he said. “I could smoke an hour before bed and I was able to go to sleep. You treat yourself and you’re trying to make yourself better with something that’s a plant.”
Once New Hampshire’s alternative treatment centers were up and running, Sparks got his card and started buying product from them. Right away, he could tell the cannabis was much better than anything he could get on the street, even though it was much more expensive.
“You know it’s grown in a sterile environment,” he said. “Any kind of impurities, it’s not there.”
Now unable to buy from the alternative treatment centers, Sparks isn’t ready to go back to purchasing marijuana illegally, especially while he appeals his case to the state.
He’s off all his old medications, but lack of cannabis has made it difficult for him to sleep and eat. Symptoms of his PTSD have worsened; he paces around the house and says he sometimes checks for snipers outside his windows at night.
Sparks said he doesn’t understand why veterans – people who could benefit from therapeutic cannabis the most – are subjected to more rigid standards than civilians.
“We’re the ones that have to go out and do all this fighting, take these orders and do these things, and we’re told we’re doing this for our freedom,” Sparks said. “We come back and where the hell is that freedom?”