RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Veterans Cannabis Project Executive Director Doug Distaso’s story is a common one. A sudden accident forced him to leave the U.S. Air Force with traumatic injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I went from the top of my world to the bottom very quickly,” Distaso said. “That descent came with a lot of pills and a lot of therapy.”
Former U.S. Army medic Steve Lambros also struggled with PTSD. He briefly took psychotropic drugs for his condition.
“I took them for maybe two days and I hated myself, I hated the way that I felt. I felt like a zombie,” Lambros said.
Lambros also watched his wife, a veteran of the Marine Corps, struggle while taking prescribed opioids for her injuries.
“She couldn’t interact with her children. Some days she couldn’t get out of bed,” Lambros said. “To have someone who had given so to her country, to her family, to be left feeling so empty in a body that hurt so much, we began to explore.”
For his wife and many more, the answer was medical cannabis. Yet limited access and strict laws are preventing veterans from reaping the benefits of what some consider medicine without compromising their morals. Lambros argues expanding access is a matter of life and death for a population in desperate need of alternative treatments with disproportionately high suicide rates.
Sen. David Marsden (D-37) is the man behind a number of bills addressing this issue. He supports expanding the state’s medical cannabis program.
“Right now it meets the needs of a great number of people but it doesn’t go far enough to deal with PTSD for instance,” he said.
Marsden said the program has been budding for years. Five processing facilities across the state are now set to open by the end of 2020. These facilities will grow, process, package and distribute pharmaceutical products more potent than the CBD currently available on shelves throughout the state.
“That was a huge lift when we started,” Marsden said. “People were very uncomfortable with it. To get the legislature to even consider it we couldn’t make it legal to possess CBD oil.”
Instead, the General Assembly passed what’s called an “affirmative defense,” giving patients with medical cannabis prescriptions a defense in court in case of arrest.
Since then, Marsden said support for these products has picked up steam. A bill that unanimously passed in the Senate this session would legalize the possession of medical cannabis for those with a prescription. Another would expand dispensaries to a maximum of 25. It would also legalize home delivery outside of the health service area.
The Veterans Cannabis Project is also advocating for telemedicine for patients to initiate treatment. Plus, the organization wants to enable non-Virginia residents to access the medical program to accommodate students and active members of the military.
Distaso and Sen. Marsden said a more robust medical program should precede a sweeping legalization of marijuana.
The General Assembly is expected to decriminalize the possession of marijuana and authorize a study of legalization this year.
Michael Krawitz, the executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, said his organization has also been in talks with the United Nations about changing the drug schedule of marijuana, a move that could open the door for further study of the plant.