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Congress Calls On VA To Study Medical Marijuana To Treat PTSD


Members of Congress are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to study medical marijuana for treating veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. Now, if the VA does this, it'd actually be a little late to the game. From member station KAZU in California, Krista Almanzan on reports.

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: The walls of Lenny and Evelyn Bernstein's house are covered with the signs of lives well lived. Abstract portraits of each hang alongside crisp jazz photographs taken by Lenny. Tucked in a corner just past the kitchen is a wall dedicated to his military service. There's a picture of his unit after basic training in 1943 and a case full of medals.

LENNY BERNSTEIN: Well, the ones I'm most proud of - the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star.

ALMANZAN: Bernstein is a World War II veteran. He was an Army combat ranger. If you want stories, he has thousands. Some he'd prefer to forget.

BERNSTEIN: Death was all around us all the time. And explosions were around us all the time. So all of that stuff, you know, comes together. And they form - I didn't know at the time - but lifelong memories. I couldn't sleep.

ALMANZAN: Back then, doctors called that combat stress reaction. The condition is now known as PTSD and is better understood. Forty years later, Bernstein was still suffering when a doctor told him to try marijuana.

BERNSTEIN: Having known, you know, what marijuana was and how it made me feel, you know, I felt that - all right, this is now sanctioned.

ALMANZAN: But what's legal in California remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government. And that prevents the Department of Veterans Affairs from prescribing cannabis or even conducting research into its use.

LOU CORREA: Our veterans deserve better.

ALMANZAN: That's California Democratic Congressman Lou Correa. He's been pushing legislation that explicitly tells the VA it has the legal right to do the research.

CORREA: To not acknowledge that our veterans are using cannabis - I think it's just plain criminal.

ALMANZAN: The bill has made it out of committee and is slated to get voted on by the full House in June. This type of sea change is exactly what Afghanistan War veteran Aaron Newsom has been preparing for. He dumps a bag of dried cannabis flowers onto a metal grate over a wooden box and shakes it.


AARON NEWSOM: I mean, ultimately, we would love to get a government contract to be able to grow on a national level for the VA, for veterans.

ALMANZAN: Newsom is co-founder of the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance. Part of its mission is to provide local veterans with a monthly ration of what he calls medical-grade cannabis free of charge. It started back in 2011. Newsom and his co-founder began growing and sharing pot as an alternative to the drugs the VA had them on. It has since grown to serve about 1,000 veterans. The office where he's sorting the cannabis sits above one of their grow operations. Next door is his marijuana dispensary. Although using cannabis is a violation of federal law, Newsom says this is about doing what is right.

NEWSOM: At some point, you know, realize that doing the right thing was taking care of myself. And so that's when I, you know, kind of kicked the stigma, didn't care about the stigma anymore and pursued what was going to make me happy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Every veteran who's here, just have your - any kind of proof of veteran status and your ID out in your lap.

ALMANZAN: Each month, the alliance meets with veterans who receive a voucher for free cannabis and talk to others who are self-medicating.

NEWSOM: So we're definitely not doctors. We are farmers. And so we're here to provide free medicine and provide as much information as we possibly can.

ALMANZAN: Newsom envisions a day when the VA will prescribe cannabis and offer his product in its pharmacy. It's something hard for World War II veteran Lenny Bernstein to imagine.

BERNSTEIN: Yes, I think it would help other people because they could get it prescribed.

ALMANZAN: When he first started smoking pot for his PTSD, Bernstein bought it on the street. Now the 92-year-old gets his stash free from the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance.

For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan in Santa Cruz, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILANTHROPE'S "RELAX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.