Vets and Seniors Are Ending the Drug War
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The following is an installment of Doug Fine's weekly column, Drug Peace Bumblebee.
Older Americans are one of the two key demographics that explain why, at long last, cannabis prohibition, America’s Longest War and her second Civil War, is finally nearly over.
Pollsters are finally accepting (though scratching their heads over the fact) that older Americans are the fastest growing segment of the population to support the Drug Peace era. The reason is pretty simple: in a pill-popping society, any plant that will, with negligible side-effects, reduce the number of capsules in the weekly pill box is welcome. As I put it in my recent book, Too High to Fail:
"In (to put it mildly) right-leaning Orange County, California, I saw senior ladies—the largest demographic component of a cannabis collective therein called Wilbur OC—being schooled in modern delivery methods (such as the vaporizor and the lozenge) so as to soothe their aching glaucoma pressure and deliver the only treatment that makes their arthritis bearable.
Craig Raimondi, Wilbur OC’s tie-wearing manager, told me, 'We see a lot of folks returning in desperation to the cannabis of their college days. They have positive memories of the plant, and feel comfortable giving it a shot when prescription medicines don’t provide relief for their symptoms. In the communities of people living with various ailments, word gets around that it’s effective.'
Wilbur OC and its sister collective in San Diego have 5,050 patient members, several dozen of whom annually take a field trip to the sustainably minded Mendocino County farm that is the source of 100 percent of the collectives’ medicine. This is known in the industry as a 'closed loop' model, which has marketing value during federal cannabis prohibition because it shows that an outfit can be relied on not to divert cannabis to, say, a college dorm in Alabama (where, by the way, prices for California bud in 2011 were about three times higher—six thousand dollars per pound—than they were inside the Golden State).
The two collectives were so popular that their executive director and Mendocino farm manager, forty-seven-year-old Jim Hill, closed membership in 2010. The collective simply couldn’t produce any more medicine than Hill and his full-time botanist already did and Hill didn’t want to risk getting it from outside sources. Only members could receive cannabis.
'Orange County needs its medicine too,' Raimondi told me when I pointed out that this was where Richard Nixon retired. 'That’s our motto.' And Wilbur offers it less expensively than any other collective or dispensary I’d seen in California too—an important consideration for seniors on a fixed income whose insurance, if they have it, can’t (yet) cover a federal 'drug.'"
So that explains seniors. Guess what? The reasons the second “surprising” group to support the end of the war on cannabis—military veterans returning from combat in harm’s way—also feel so strongly, are nearly identical to those expressed by seniors across the nation. They are eager to be free of addictive or otherwise harmful pharmaceuticals after their service has ended. Again, from Too High to Fail:
"I met a half-dozen veterans receiving Hill’s Mendocino medicine, and all spoke of positive results for ailments ranging from arthritis to cancer to glaucoma to pain from war injuries to PTSD and insomnia. In fact, what I saw in Orange County was an eye-opener for me: There are people there who like both Bill O’Reilly and cannabis.
At the San Diego collective Hill founded, the patient who most intrigued me was thirty-year-old Iraq War vet and retired army sergeant Jamie Brown, who is also the collective manager. There’s no less graphic way to describe his shrapnel injury than to say what he says: 'You could fit two fingers into the dent in my back.' That was because of the rocket that exploded five feet from his tent in 2003.
Two months of in-patient, sometimes touch-and-go intensive care followed for an injury that his doctor told him he 'wouldn’t have survived if this was Vietnam.' The entry wound was an inch and a half from Brown’s spine, took out his left kidney, his spleen, and the distal portion of his pancreas. During the acute phase of his recovery, he had multiple chest tubes.
And yet six months later his real problem was prescription painkillers. 'I got great care that saved my life, no question, but when you tell the VA you have pain, they toss you a pill. None of the painkillers is positive for your body, and I was on every one of them at some point. If I hadn’t tried cannabis as a kid, I’d probably never have thought of it as a medicine. But I moved to California [from Indiana] in large part because of the medical cannabis law, and today I take no pharmaceuticals at all. Cannabis isn’t just helpful to me for pain and the remnants of any PTSD. It’s a motivator to eat well and exercise, which is crucial to staying healthy with my injury. I’m a lucky man to have access to this plant. I thank God for it, actually. I think about the other injured vets I knew in Indiana every day and I wish they had access to the medicine that I do.'
When I asked him how he handled his cannabis medication within the federal constraints faced by his VA doctor, Brown said, 'You’re the first person I’ve ever told outside of my family, this collective, and close friends that I medicate with cannabis.'
Another San Diego patient/member at Hill’s collective, fifty-four-year-old former Navy SEAL Mike Knox, was prescribed methadone for an aorta tear, a medication that made him lethargic and obese before he kicked it with cannabis. 'I lost a hundred thirty-five pounds when I got off that stuff,' he said. 'I just bought me a new motorcycle. I’m back. In my age group especially, we Medicaiders at fifty-plus years old, we need this medicine -- and education about it.'
The political shift surrounding cannabis in seniors and veterans—two generally conservative demographics—is just a microcosm of our wider medical system crossroads: a patient today can either accept the current pharmaceutical situation with its many ups and significant downs or, when you have the luxury of time, research alternatives. As I put it in the book, health care costs are becoming so ubiquitously out of reach for average Americans that entire cottage industries of below-the-insurance-radar treatments, some ancient and even—gasp—effective, are springing up."
And as I discussed in a previous column, cannabis is so safe that the objection that patients might suffer from a lack of the kind of laboratory uniformity they enjoy with a pill is a specious one—a red herring put forth by those who profit from the status quo.
In the end, being approached in rapid succession by two AARP member cannabis farmers has solidified a major political lesson for me. In fact, looking back, the biggest lesson I’ve learned from watching the drug policy discussion for three years is that when Tea Partiers agree with Occupiers, the voice of the people can’t be ignored, no matter how powerful the special interests.
In other words, our political system is still very much a democracy when this many people care. No matter what efforts are underway to patent components of cannabis and monetize and pharma-tize the plant, as long as it will be legal to grow in home gardens and acquire at the farmer’s market, I can in good conscience continue to say, “God Bless America.”