Military veterans Dante Cammarata, left, and Andrew Collins pose for a photo in front of a wall filled with personal photos of service men and women at their office space in Olympia, Washington on July 8, 2015. Collins has launched a support group called Twenty22Many, which is focused on reducing suicide rates among veterans with help from medical marijuana. (Steve Bloom, The Olympian)

Washington state veterans form support group to promote medical pot

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Andrew Collins no longer has a cocktail of 17 prescriptions coursing through his body.

The Army combat veteran stared death in the face while serving two tours of Iraq in the 2000s. He now battles post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his wartime experiences.

The Olympia veteran has tried medications, meditation and hypnosis while adapting to the stresses of life in the civilian world. But more than any other treatment, Collins says marijuana has helped him cope with the psychological trauma he carries around — trauma that at times has filled his head with aggression and suicidal thoughts.

“I smoke a joint and the thoughts are gone,” said Collins, 30.

He said medical marijuana has replaced most of those government-approved prescriptions he had been taking. “I was overmedicated.”

Collins has launched a support group called Twenty22Many (pronounced “twenty-two too many”), which is focused on reducing suicide rates among military veterans with help from medical marijuana.

Twenty22Many meets every other Sunday at Rainier Xpress, a medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Olympia. The group got its name from a sobering statistic from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: An average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day — or nearly 8,000 per year.

However, some sources suggest the rate might be higher because only 21 states have submitted data to the department. Notable states missing from the report include California and Texas.

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that “PTSD has been found to be a risk factor” for suicidal thoughts, which are often triggered by combat-related guilt that “can often overpower the emotional coping capacities of veterans.”

Some academic studies suggest a link between medical marijuana and a reduction in suicide rates and PTSD symptoms. In 2013, the American Journal of Public Health reported that suicides among men ages 20-39 were reduced by an average of 10.8 percent in states that have legalized medical marijuana compared to states that have not. In addition, a 2014 study by New Mexico psychiatrist Dr. George Greer concluded that marijuana provided relief for PTSD symptoms in 75 percent of patients in a controlled study.

Other reports show potential drawbacks to treating PTSD with cannabis. For example, an individual could build up a tolerance to the drug’s sleep-inducing effects, leading to increased use. Cannabis also comes with a high relapse rate for those trying to quit, according to a 2014 study co-authored by Marcel Bonn-Miller, clinical psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The study notes the likelihood of sleep disturbances due to cannabis use and withdrawal, along with reductions of activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in regulating sleep.

A 2015 report published by Addiction Science and Clinical Practice says that PTSD is associated with “greater odds of a cannabis use disorder diagnosis,” which describes significant impairment or distress caused by using the drug. “Cannabis use disorders have been associated with poorer PTSD treatment outcomes,” according to the report, which acknowledges the lack of scientific evidence to support marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.

For many veterans, the positives outweigh the negatives. Rainier Xpress owner Patrick Seifert has been a tireless advocate for medical marijuana, especially for veterans. Seifert estimates he has helped more than 2,000 veterans at the Olympia dispensary, which includes a “wall of honor” for his military patients.

“To me, the 22 a day is absolutely unacceptable,” Seifert said of the veteran suicide rate. “Every one of those women and men who die have a belly full of pharmaceuticals that they got from the VA.”

Seifert has lobbied the Legislature to reform marijuana laws and points to a major victory in the movement. Effective July 24, PTSD and traumatic brain injury will be considered qualifying conditions for medical marijuana authorization in Washington.

In addition, Seifert has created the PTS Pen with veterans in mind. About 25 veterans are testing his prototype vaporizer and have agreed to keep a journal about the device’s effectiveness in treating symptoms.

“PTSD isn’t just a veteran issue,” said Seifert, who served with the Marine Corps during the first Gulf War. “It’s a human issue.”

Olympia resident and Twenty22Many board member Dante Cammarata has suffered from PTSD since his deployment to Iraq in 2003 as an Army medic. Medical marijuana has provided relief without the side effects of pharmaceuticals, he said.

Cammarata supports holistic and alternative treatments to the standard prescriptions from military doctors. One particular group he has tried to reach “before the pills get them” is active-duty soldiers with PTSD who are about to transition to civilian life without a support system in place.

“This is a viable alternative,” he said of marijuana, noting that without it, “I don’t know if I’d still be here.”

Twenty22Many will lead an awareness march and rally starting at 12:30 p.m. July 22 on the steps of the State Capitol. At 1 p.m., the group will march to Sylvester Park, where veterans are encouraged to speak about their experiences. Following a free community meal for veterans at 5:30 p.m., the event will feature a panel of guest speakers including Dr. Sue Sisley, who is known for her medical marijuana research.

Sisley, who lives in Arizona, has been commissioned by Colorado to study marijuana’s effects on veterans with PTSD. The study has been delayed because the National Institute for Drug Abuse must provide federally grown samples of marijuana that are authorized for research.

Sisley said the anecdotal evidence is compelling, and she said she hopes more veterans will consider marijuana as an option for treating PTSD.

“It’s surprising how many thousands of veterans are using it on the black market and just can’t come out of the shadows,” she told The Olympian. “I feel we have a duty to these veterans to study this in a vigorous way.”

Information from: The Olympian