LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- Arkansas joins nearly 30 states allowing medical marijuana. For many, that means a new treatment option they are eager to try. For veterans, it's still an uphill battle.
Veterans across the country have heard medical marijuana could help many conditions including PTSD, but even in states where medical marijuana is legal, vets are struggling to get their hands on it. It’s because of federal regulations.
Tom Lee is one of those veterans. He served 19 years in the military, both in the Army and National Guard. He says his most cherished memory while serving was pulling people off the highway during ice storms.
“There ain’t nothing that makes you feel better than being able to help someone out,” he said.
But the privilege came with a price. He went through a Gulf War study group that found many veterans had illnesses after various environmental exposures and contact with pollutants overseas. Lee said it likely happened while he spent time on the Kuwaiti border picking up dead animals and digging fox holes in the sand.
“We were living in the earth so whatever was there, we were fully exposed to it,” he said.
The exposure had lasting effects, not only for him but for his team. After he got home from serving in 2003, he says he was allergic to nearly every drug. He couldn't walk and became wheelchair bound. Doctors prescribed morphine as a last resort.
“People don't understand what a dark place morphine can take you,” said Lee. “You learn the worst of yourself and feel the worst of your body."
While he and his wife, Dawn, were visiting family in California, a friend introduced them to medical marijuana and told them he should try it. He told them worst it could do is nothing; the best it could do is save his life. So, he tried it. Two weeks later, he said his life started to change.
“They carried me on a plane to get me out there and I walked coming home after not being able to walk for almost 3 years,” said Lee.
For the first time in a long time, Tom Lee says he finally had something; hope. He hasn't looked back since his time in California. He’s been taking marijuana ever since. He has had to take it illegally knowing he could get caught at any moment. His wife says the whole process is petrifying.
“My husband is a disabled vet who is doing something illegal,” she said. “I wasn't raised to break the law."
Even with medical marijuana becoming legal in Arkansas, the Lees feel that they're trapped because of the Veteran Affairs policy on marijuana. According to federal VA policy, VA doctors can't prescribe or recommend marijuana because it’s still labeled a schedule 1 drug.
Tina McClain, Chief of Staff for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, said doctors at the Arkansas VA will also not be able to recommend it or prescribe it. She said if a veteran chooses to go to another physician to get the recommendation for medical marijuana, it won't impact their ability to receive other care from the VA. McClain also said that for now, it looks like the policy won’t be changing anytime soon.
“I am not aware of any group or individual in the VA looking now at changing the policy because we are guided through federal law,” said McClain.
Tom and Dawn Lee said their efforts won't change either. They'll continue to fight in hopes the VA and federal government will recommend medical marijuana as an acceptable treatment option.
“The most evil thing in the world is a person who would knowingly allow their brother, sister, or neighbor to suffer,” said Lee. “I’ve tried not to do that and I’ve tried to let everyone know the truth about this plant."
If you need medical advice, have a question about your medication, or need to discuss your VA Eligibility, you can call the Central Arkansas Veteran Healthcare System at (501) 257-5655.
To view the federal VA policy on medical marijuana click here.