RANCHO SANTA FE, California — Even though more states are legalizing medical marijuana, and federal officials have claimed that the prosecution of pot smokers is no longer a priority, the “war on drugs” continues to destroy the lives of Americans suffering from dire medical conditions.
Sean Kiernan is a U.S. Army veteran from Rancho Santa Fe, California, who, along with his wife, pleaded guilty earlier this year to felony charges related to growing marijuana for other veterans.
Kiernan attempted suicide in 2011, nearly becoming part of a horrifying statistic: Although the figure is disputed, some estimates suggest that an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Still struggling two years later, Kiernan was involuntarily committed by officials at a Veterans Affairs hospital, an experience which he says led him to embrace the benefits of cannabis over pharmaceutical drugs.
California, like 22 other states and Washington, D.C., has legalized medical marijuana. Yet even in states with medical marijuana, veterans may not be able to access the drug without endangering their benefits, though this policy is slowly changing. In July, a judge dropped charges against Kristoffer Lewandowski, a Marine Corps veteran, who had faced life in prison in Oklahoma for using cannabis to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to a report from 2013, nearly one in 10 prison inmates is a veteran. Recent data shows over 13,200 veterans are now in treatment through “Veterans Treatment Courts,” an alternative to the criminal justice system that’s coming under increasing pressure as more veterans struggle with substance abuse, mental health issues or other trauma.
In an interview with MintPress News, Kiernan said he’s being targeted because of his frequent appearances in the media touting the benefits of medical marijuana for veterans and his support of a controversial scientist who wants to study its effects on PTSD.
Reflecting on the struggle for access, Kiernan said, “Marijuana is illegal because it makes people rich.” Indeed, the war on drugs brings in billions every year to police and the prison-industrial complex. According to a 2013 report from MSNBC, over a trillion dollars has been spent since the war on drugs began.
Despite facing a felony charge, Kiernan is determined to continue to spread awareness of the drug’s potential in treating America’s veterans. In fact, he’s planning to celebrate Veterans Day in Washington surrounded by people with similar experiences.
A veteran of war and the war on drugs
Before we spoke, Kiernan shared a written account of an incident during his service in Panama. He joined the Army in 1990 and was eventually stationed with the 87th Infantry at Ft. Davis in Panama. While he encountered numerous traumas during his service, one particular incident that stands out for him is the death of his friend and fellow soldier, Cpl. Zak A. Hernandez.
Hernandez died in 1992, when his Jeep was ambushed by men armed with automatic rifles outside of Panama City. His passenger, Sgt. Ronald T. Marshall, was also severely injured, in what may have been an act of revenge for the invasion of the city in 1989 and its continued occupation by U.S. soldiers. Kiernan and other soldiers had actually competed to make the trip, only for the task to fall to Hernandez.
“Death is part of the military, I donʼt know why this one hit me so hard vs. others,” he wrote.
After being honorably discharged from the Army in 1993, Kiernan began experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Before discovering the treatment that benefits him most — marijuana — Kiernan told MintPress he suffered from insomnia, severe nightmares, and aggressive behavior he found difficult to control. He also abused a variety of drugs before recognizing the potential of marijuana, he said. In 2011, overwhelmed by hopelessness, Kiernan was hospitalized after taking an almost fatal dose of GHB, a narcotic sedative, and Lamictal, a PTSD drug.
At the urging of his family, Kiernan sought help through conventional medicine at a VA hospital in 2013, only to experience the additional trauma of being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. In another written account he shared with MintPress, Kiernan described his breakdown in an overcrowded reception area
“A tremendous anxiety came over me as I started to remember so much I had tried so long to forget, I started to break down and cry, quietly at first, but tears started to stream down my face uncontrollably and I became overwhelmed with emotion.
I was wearing a hoodie, which I pulled over my head and face and my sobbing only got worse. Memories, fears, and anger filled me like a floodgate had been opened.”
Although he says some of the staff were compassionate toward him, a doctor recommended he be admitted to the psychiatric ward for observation. When Kiernan refused and tried to leave, police arrested him and forced him to stay on an involuntary hold. Kiernan said the hospital was on “high alert” because Chris Kyle, the veteran of “American Sniper” fame, had been shot recently by another soldier suffering from PTSD at a Texas gun range.
The hospitalization marked a turning point for Kiernan. He said it “allowed me to see the horrific over-medication of our veterans and soldiers. That is what motivated me to become active.”
‘We got our guy back’
Kiernan had been prescribed a lengthy list of medications that came with side effects of their own that he found unbearable. For example, he was prescribed Prazosin, a drug meant to treat high blood pressure which can also be prescribed for anxiety, but on his second day home from the hospital, he said: “Chrissy, my wife, noticed I was talking nonsense and she soon realized I was dreaming while awake which — surprise, surprise — is a stated side effect of Prazosin.”
The VA’s guide to pharmaceutical treatment for PTSD includes dozens of possible drugs, ranging from antidepressants to mood stabilizers and antiepileptic drugs, each with a range of potential side effects. Possible side effects of serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants most commonly used for PTSD treatment include from insomnia, nausea, dizziness, and sexual dysfunction. Lamictal, an antiseizure medication used as a mood stabilizer, can cause insomnia, headaches, tremors, and occasionally blurred vision.
By contrast, Kiernan says marijuana helps him feel more in control of his symptoms and it carries far fewer side effects. He realized its potential from talking to other veterans as he sought help through conventional medicine. He says a common refrain among the wives of veterans, describing the effect of marijuana on their families, is: “We got our guy back.”
Watch Veteran Sean Kiernan Speaks in Favor of Marijuana for PTSD Research:
After experiencing firsthand the benefits of cannabis, Kiernan sought to help others access the drug. He went public as a medical marijuana user in 2014 to defend Sue Sisley, a former researcher at the University of Arizona, who was fired under controversial circumstances just months after receiving approval to study the benefits of marijuana on veterans suffering from PTSD. His support for Sisley led to an appearance on “Weed 3: The Marijuana Revolution,” a documentary released by CNN in April.
“It’s a civil rights movement,” he told MintPress. “People need to come out of the closet, show it’s not all hippie surfers.”
As chief financial officer of the Weed For Warriors Project, Kiernan organizes a monthly BBQ in California that offers bags of donated medical marijuana to veterans. But his other efforts to help veterans gain access to this crucial herbal medicine have strayed beyond the boundaries of the law.
In November 2014, close to the time the CNN documentary was first announced, Kiernan says he literally ran into a DEA agent surveillancing his property one morning. In January, agents raided his house. During the raid, an agent told him he’d been targeted because of his defense of Sisley.
Kiernan and his wife pleaded guilty to felony possession of marijuana with intent to sell and will be sentenced in December. He told MintPress that he’s accused of helping veterans in states without medical marijuana laws access the drug at rates far below what they’d pay on the black market. Because of the active charges against him, he was reticent to describe exactly what this entailed, but it’s clear that he remains unrepentant.
“When something is unjust, we have a duty to break that law,” he said.
Kiernan emphasized that the war on drugs is destroying lives. People are imprisoned who led productive lives and were “otherwise adding value to the economy.”
Cannaball Run: Taking the struggle to Washington
Despite growing evidence that cannabis can be beneficial in the treatment of a host of ailments, government officials remain reluctant to acknowledge its potential. In September, Chuck Rosenberg, the acting chief of the DEA, admitted that marijuana is less dangerous than heroin, but said he wouldn’t allow it to be legally reclassified as a less dangerous drug. And in a Nov. 4 briefing with reporters, he called medical marijuana “a joke,” dismissing its effectiveness outright.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also denies the medicinal potential of cannabis. A report published on the VA website claims, “[T]here is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD. In fact, research suggests that marijuana can be harmful to individuals with PTSD.”
In the hopes of changing these attitudes, Kiernan, along with other members of Weed For Warriors, embarked a cross-country journey called the Cannaball Run, an awareness campaign that began on Oct. 17 in Santa Monica, California, and is scheduled to end on Wednesday, Veterans Day, in Washington, D.C.
“We’re going to march from Ben Franklin Park to the Veterans Administration to the White House, laying out empty pill bottles as we go,” he told MintPress.
In addition to educating the public about marijuana, he hopes the event will bring attention to the shocking suicide rate among veterans, which Kiernan fears could be much higher due to the common problem of under-reporting of suicides. The war on drugs exacerbates the problem, he explained. “People say, ‘Marijuana worked for him and then they took it away in jail and he committed suicide.’”
“The people who are benefiting are a few rich families from the pharmaceutical industry, and the under-educated thugs in the prison guard population, we’ve got to change something here,” Kiernan concluded.
Watch a “Weed For Warriors” introductory video: