Veterans are on the frontline of the addiction epidemic, medical marijuana movement

On April 19, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services will hear testimony and receive documentation concerning whether to allow providers to use medical marijuana to treat “addiction to opiates and drugs derived from chemical synthesis.” I hope department officials give due consideration to veterans as they reach their decision. When it comes to addiction, it’s important to talk about veterans.

Maine ranks sixth in the nation for veterans living in the state, per capita. Freely translated, if you’re from Maine, most likely you are a veteran, are related to one or know at least one personally. Obviously veterans have been on the front lines of our various military conflicts; less obviously, they have also been on the front line of the prescription medication push that we now understand has contributed to our state’s addiction and drug overdose epidemic.

Few have come to terms with this reality the way that Ryan Begin has. Begin, 35 of Monroe, Maine, is a former Marine who served from 2003 to 2007 when he was medically retired. His service began as a member of one of the units that inserted the Delta force team that rescued prisoner of war Jessica Lynch from Nasiriyah, Iraq. Eighteen of his fellow Marines died.

In 2004 a roadside bomb detonated as his unit was traveling near Baghdad, blowing off Begin’s right elbow. Surviving the injury and the more than 35 surgeries since meant putting his faith in the medical professionals taking care of him. In our interview, he said, “I took whatever they gave me,” and recalled leaving “Bethesda (Walter Reed) with a school backpack full of pills.” When not having surgeries, Begin returned to Walter Reed monthly for check-ups and to refill his backpack.

From 2004 to 2006, his medications increased. At the peak, he reported being on “200 pills a day,” including pain medications, psychiatric medications, blood pressure medication, and steroids and other medications specific to his injury and surgeries. Begin openly acknowledges mismanaging the dosages of some of his medications and being so controlled by his opiate pain medications that “it was like having to carry around an oxygen tank.” He said, “No one should have to live like that — to be dependent on a chemical that’s working against me.”

By 2007 he realized he was addicted to the opiates he received for pain and turned to Suboxone, a medication-assisted treatment for opiate addiction. Suboxone didn’t solve the problems he had afterward with the combination of benzodiazepines and dextraphetamine (a medication more powerful than the more familiar Aderol), though, or his underlying psycho-social behavioral and mental health issues. Begin admitted to taking his entire month’s supply of his benzodiazepines and dextraphetamine in the first two weeks of the month, then knocking himself to sleep the last two weeks of the month with a drug called Seroquel.

Begin describes his behavior during that period as scarily erratic. In an article/video that appeared in the American Legion Magazine last summer (click here), his mother reflected on her experiences trying to support her son during this period. Both mother and son anticipated Begin’s eventual death from his medication regimen and the behavior they associate with it. And he came close in 2009 when “I crashed my truck on Valium and whiskey.”

After 43 days in jail, Begin was determined and had two goals: He was never going back to jail, and he wanted to get his daughter, born during this chaotic period of his life, back. He knew his problems with his medications and his mental health were preventing him from being the dad she really needed, something that pained him greatly. His determination led him to contact Dr. Dustin Sulak, with offices in Manchester and Falmouth, who began a medical marijuana and meditation regimen with Begin.

Begin said Dr. Sulak and cannabis “taught me self-rescue, to take responsibility for myself — I have to save myself.” Now Begin is free of all prescription medications and has become a veteran’s advocate. He acknowledges that medical marijuana and medical marijuana products might not be the solution for everyone, but he believes such treatment should be made more available to veterans who can find themselves penalized by the VA for turning to marijuana.

Ryan Begin in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Augusta, Maine. (Photo by roger Leisner/The Maine Paparazzi and used with his permission.  Thanks Roger!)

Ryan Begin in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Augusta. (Roger Leisner | The Maine Paparazzi)

Begin has achieved his two goals: He has had no more criminal issues and has his daughter living with him. More than that, he has achieved a lifestyle he didn’t think was possible prior to finding medical marijuana. Besides his daughter, Begin feels blessed by a loving, supportive wife, Hailey, and the newest addition to their family, a son, who is 7 months.

When he came home missing part of his arm, Begin was sure he was less of a man, sure that no one would ever love him again, sure that he would never like himself again. What a thrill to listen to his story progress from those tragic sureties to his descriptions of his life now and to see the smile he wears when he talks about his wife and children.

Beyond advocating for veterans’ access to medical marijuana, Begin is a passionate and articulate advocate for other psychological and social problems vets experience. I became of aware of Begin while interviewing caregivers and clients on the forefront of the movement to add addiction to the list of treatable conditions. He and other veterans I’ve met through this process have generously shared details about what went on in their heads and lives when they came home from their active duty.

We civilians are familiar with the idea that the horrors and tragedies our military personnel experience come home with them, leading some to struggle with things like PTSD and depression. We are less familiar with the idea of constant vigilance and purpose that dictate the time of people who serve. Military personnel are trained to be on guard, connected to others, and ready to serve their purpose at all times.

Civilian life isn’t like that. Civilian life doesn’t require constant vigilance, and it can be hard to find work and connections that feel purposeful, especially if behaving erratically. Worse, it can be easy to escape the void and the PTSD with alcohol and/or medications that are all too readily available and can become problematic for some users too easily. Another veteran, Dave, and his caregivers talked about how Dave couldn’t sit still — ever.

His caregiver, Glenn Lewis, said Dave would just pace almost constantly, and once, when the furnace kicked on behind where they were standing, Dave was in the air, turned around and ready to fight in less than a second. The Dave I interviewed was sitting, calm, and focused.

Like Begin, Dave struggled with his legally acquired benzodiazepines mixed with alcohol. He spoke candidly about his erratic and impulsive behavior. Dave’s epiphany came in the form of a criminal OUI that is still being adjudicated, so he was unable to discuss many details except for acknowledging the kindness of the state trooper who pulled him over that night. The officer tried to convince him to get help.

Like Begin and the others, medical marijuana leaves Dave with little or no desire to drink alcohol at all. All the veterans referred to medical marijuana slowing down the impulsivity that was a part of their self-destructive and life-destructive behaviors. Of the half dozen or so medical marijuana vets I’ve met, they are all down to either one medication and medical marijuana or no medications besides medicinal marijuana.

Looking back, Begin said returning home and taking all those medications led to a lifestyle that was like living “life bouncing between bumpers, banging my head trying to make things work that won’t work, not able to understand that I might need to try something different.” Medical marijuana and being mindful of their circumstances and symptoms has been that something different for the veterans I’ve been talking to recently.

Talking to Begin and these other veterans is like tapping into a profound well of wisdom, rare to come across, and rarer still to be able to draw from it. More simply put, and pardon the vulgarity, but these folks have their shit together. They speak with a level of acceptance, of purpose, and of contentment that is nothing less than inspirational.

They want other veterans and other people addicted to opiates and “drugs derived from chemical synthesis” here in Maine to have the opportunity to take back their health and their lives with medical marijuana, if they so choose, and they hope DHHS will afford them that opportunity.


Update:  A previous version of this post mistakenly said that Begin was a part of the diversion created to enable the insertion of the Delta Force team that rescued Jessica Lynch, rather than correctly stating that he was a part of the unit that inserted the team. Also, the previous version mistakenly said that Begin was on Aderol rather than dextraphetamine.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.