Leo Bridgewater is a 42-year-old father of two, a veteran who served three tours of duty in the Army and a former Defense Department contractor who worked as a specialist in microwave and satellite communications in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s also a medical marijuana patient who uses the plant to manage the trauma he sustained as a result of his service.
“I have an uncle who was special forces in Vietnam ― he was into the medicinal value of cannabis, and he is also someone who I counsel with on a regular basis. It was through his guidance that I started looking at cannabis as a way of treating my knee pains and then also, my overall health, my overall emotional health,” Bridgewater told HuffPost. “That’s the one thing that we don’t really pay too much attention to, because it’s the thing that you can’t see.”
Thousands of veterans and active-duty military personnel face personal battles with pain or psychological trauma. To treat those symptoms, doctors often turn to an ever-expanding list of prescription painkillers or anti-psychotics, which have helped countless veterans upon returning to civilian life.
But many of the most popular medications for veterans also come with risky side effects. Prescription drugs designed to address the most serious post-traumatic stress symptoms ― anxiety, depression, flashbacks and insomnia ― have been associated with an increase in suicidal thinking, for example. And these side effects can be worse when medications are combined with one another.
The continued reliance on prescription painkillers also comes as the nation is being consumed by one of the deadliest recorded drug overdose crises in its history. In 2015, there were more than 50,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. More than half of these deaths were caused by legal prescription drugs, which often serve as a pathway to heroin or fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has increasingly appeared in street drugs.
Bridgewater was concerned about the risks that come with traditional pharmaceutical drugs, and decided to decline the pills as treatment for his conditions. Like many military service members, he also feared the stigma surrounding mental illness. He didn’t tell military officials he was suffering from PTSD because he worried it would negatively impact his career.
Instead, Bridgewater turned to marijuana. He began using it to help ease pain resulting from knee surgery in 2002 to repair injuries linked to paratrooper training. Bridgewater said it improved his pain “by leaps and bounds.”
“When you get into bed at night, you’ve got to decompress and stuff, but cannabis takes all of that away. It does. It literally does,” Bridgewater said. “You’re moving better, and you’re feeling better, before you even realize you do.”
Then in 2011, after returning home from his lengthy military career to Trenton, New Jersey, Bridgewater started having regular nightmares, a common symptom of PTSD.
His oldest son and his wife at the time would “bleed into” his dreams, he said. “And I would wake up more tired than when I went to sleep. I came to find out it’s because in my sleep I was really fighting. To me that was the first indicator of PTSD. I’m not a violent man, but it’s that feeling.”
Already a legal medical marijuana patient in New Jersey, Bridgewater began using it for his PTSD, even though the state hadn’t yet added that as a qualifying condition. And as with his knee pain, Bridgewater says, marijuana significantly alleviated his PTSD symptoms.
“I knew I was getting better, when I started using cannabis and CBD oil,” Bridgewater said. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant that doesn’t produce the “high” sensation commonly associated with pot. The nightmares stopped and his agitated feelings associated with the disorder begin to melt away, with instances becoming fewer and farther between.
“Whenever my rage button has been pushed and I can feel the PTSD coming up, one of the things that I’ll do is, I’ll definitely pull out my vape pen,” he added. “I can remove myself, pull out my vape pen and bring it down.”
Roughly 20 percent of military veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD and depression, according to a 2012 VA report. And a recent study found that the suicide rate among those veterans suffering from PTSD is 50 percent higher than the national average.
Bridgewater made the leap from medical marijuana patient to advocate in 2015. He’d already lost some friends to suicide at the time, and when a fellow veteran posted a suicide note on Facebook, he jumped into action. Bridgewater called the police, his friend’s family, and eventually his friend. Officers were ultimately able to intervene before it was too late. But Bridgewater decided New Jersey’s marijuana laws needed to change. In 2016, he testified alongside other veterans before a state Senate committee to urge lawmakers to adopt PTSD as a qualifying medical condition for medical marijuana.
“It eats away at me, the idea that if they would have had access to this, like I have access to it, it just eats away at me that they didn’t have access ― maybe they could still be here,” Bridgewater said.
Three months after he testified, Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed a bill covering PTSD under the state’s medical marijuana law.
Preliminary research suggests that marijuana may help alleviate some of the primary symptoms of PTSD, including anxiety, flashbacks and depression. Doctors are currently conducting a groundbreaking clinical trial to test whether smoked marijuana can help reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD.
Still, the federal government continues to prohibit marijuana, classifying it as a Schedule I drug with no medical value. It also explicitly prohibits any VA doctor from recommending marijuana to patients, even in states with medical marijuana laws. Last year, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) introduced a provision to make it easier for qualified veterans to access state-legal medical marijuana. Although both the Senate and the House passed the measure, Republican leadership ultimately stripped it from the final VA funding bill that passed Congress. Blumenauer reintroduced the bill last month.
These restrictions have further complicated the issue of treatment for veterans as the marijuana reform movement progresses across the country. Legal recreational marijuana has been approved in eight states and Washington, D.C., which continues to ban sales, unlike the state programs. A total of 29 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, with 23 of those explicitly allowing for patients to use medical marijuana for PTSD.
Veterans may also see an unclear path forward on marijuana under President Donald Trump, who has continued to pledge he’ll be “taking care of our veterans.” President Barack Obama’s Justice Department allowed states to forge their own way on marijuana policy by issuing guidance in 2013 that outlined how states can avoid running afoul of federal marijuana enforcement priorities. But this guidance, known as the Cole memo, is not law and could be reversed by the Trump administration. As a candidate, Trump appeared to be in favor of medical marijuana, saying he would respect states’ rights on the issue. But his selection of anti-marijuana hardliner Jeff Sessions as attorney general was deeply troubling to those who favor progressive drug laws.
Despite Sessions’ continued anti-marijuana rhetoric, he has said that the Obama-era guidance on marijuana enforcement has some points of value and is “valid.” That, along with the fact that there has yet to be a dramatic shift in federal marijuana directives three months into Trump’s presidency, has some advocates hoping no news is good news. Some also doubt whether the Department of Justice has the available resources for an aggressive nationwide crackdown. Still, if Trump does pursue a federal crackdown and renege on his campaign support of states rights on marijuana, it could come at a considerable political cost.
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States, and the trend of states bucking prohibition in favor of taxing and regulating the plant reflects a broad cultural shift toward greater acceptance of marijuana. A recent survey from Quinnipiac University found a strong majority of American voters ― 71 percent ― want the federal government to respect state marijuana laws. In that survey, majorities of Republicans, Democrats, independents and every age group polled agreed the feds should not enforce prohibitionist laws on states that have legalized marijuana. National support for marijuana legalization has risen dramatically in recent years, reaching historic highs in multiple polls. Medical marijuana in particular enjoys extraordinarily high support. A Quinnipiacpoll found that 94 percent of Americans support allowing adults to use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it.
“Right now, if the White House is worried about cannabis, or thinking about cannabis, that right there shows you they’re not built for this world ― you’ve got much bigger problems,” Bridgewater said.
Bridgewater is continuing his fight for access to medical marijuana and hopes to see New Jersey move toward full legalization. That fight, Bridgewater says, comes from a veteran’s perspective, and for the brotherhood he feels for his fellow service members.
“We hold each other down like that,” Bridgewater said. “This is real and the one thing that I will not tolerate at all is disrespect of a veteran.”
One form of disrespect would be to continue denying veterans access to medical marijuana, forcing them to seek treatment in the shadows for fear of retribution from the government, Bridgewater says.
“It doesn’t match the rhetoric in terms of patriotism,” Bridgewater said. “Patriotism is not relegated to just while we’re at war. Patriotism is indicative of how you treat the men and women who fought for you.”
Video produced by Alex Berg.