Q & A: Aaron Augustis of the Veteran's Cannabis Group
September 19, 2016
Aaron Augustis is an Iraq war veteran and a Co Founder of Veteran's Cannabis Group. The group currently offers education, delivery and family support for Veterans who use medical cannabis, often for the symptoms of PTSD. His Co Founder Lynette Shaw, started the first licensed medical marijuana dispensary in CA in 1997.
Aaron took time to talk to HelloMD about his battle with PTSD after returning from Iraq and his journey to start Veteran's Cannabis Group.
What is the Veterans Cannabis Group?
The Veterans Cannabis Group is a veteran owned and run entity. We are a medical marijuana support group, a networking group, and a resource center for veterans and their families. We are open for anyone who supports veterans, but our mission is veteran focused. Our main goal is to be a resource center that has multiple components including education and access to medicine, but we are not just going to be handing out cannabis.
For example, we did an education event with HelloMD. We had a HelloMD doctor come and educate our members on cannabis because many veterans do not know about medical cannabis and its benefits, or they are afraid to use it because they believe they could possibly loose their VA benefits. That is another factor of education, to inform veterans that they will not lose their VA benefits if they use medical cannabis. Overall, our mission is to be an education resource for veterans who use medical cannabis.
Why did you start the Veterans Cannabis Group?
Being a veteran myself, I was trying to find a group of veterans to talk to about cannabis. I just wanted to hear what other veterans were doing and what had worked for them. There was nothing around where I lived though. I live in Marin and I did a google search and found Weed for Warriors, which I believe is out of Santa Cruz, and Grow for Vets, which is Colorado based, though they do have a chapter in Livermore, but there was nothing right around where I lived.
I wanted to form a group to bring veterans together so we could share information in a safe and non-threatening environment. I think when you put veterans in a room with other veterans, they open up and share more experiences because there is more trust when you have experienced similar things.
I wanted to start a place for not only myself, but for other veterans to go and talk and get access to the medicine. Many other veterans I met along the way also wanted a place where they could specifically talk to other veterans. They were tired of the grey area that marijuana has been in for a while. They want to work with people they trust and have more in common with.
How has the community reacted to your group?
I think the overall reaction has been very positive because we are talking about combat veterans using cannabis for combat related PTSD. We aren’t talking about just going out and getting stoned, we are talking about real problems and real solutions. When you incorporate veterans into the situation, it is a little easier to validate because people take it more seriously, not like just a group of guys who wants to get high.
We are talking about issues like the veterans suicide epidemic and opioid overdoses. We are seeing 22 veterans commit suicide by the day, and about 20 of those are dying from opioid overdoses. To me it just makes sense.
I got back from Iraq and I had these huge waves of emotion that would come on and were uncontrollable. Sometimes when you’re out of that environment your mind is still processing and you have a lot of built up emotion that you store away when you are in a combat zone. Especially when you are in are a leadership position, which I was as a sergeant, you have to bottle that energy up when you are in the combat zone.
Then when you get home, it all of the sudden starts to release and it is not necessarily in a controlled manner. You can’t just say, “I’m going to cry it all out right now”. You can be triggered by many different things like a talk show on the radio, news about soldiers being killed, or the smell of diesel fuel, which is a very common trigger for many combat veterans.
Not everyone is in agreement with it, but with the veteran aspect it is hard to deny. If you have all of these veterans saying cannabis works for PTSD then you shouldn’t push it to the side. There’s a chance that veterans using cannabis to help with PTSD could be the thing that gets the feds to reschedule. The FDA is currently doing a study, licensed by the DEA, for veterans taking cannabis for PTSD relief. The study is taking place in Baltimore, MD and Phoenix, AZ. There are 36 participants in each location, so there are 72 participants total.
This is the first study of its kind where it is actually licensed by the DEA, so that’s why I think the veterans will be such a powerful voice. The VA takes care of veterans and the VA gets its funding from the federal government, so you have all these veterans saying we need cannabis, but because the VA is federally run, the doctors can’t even right marijuana prescriptions in states where it is legal.
Does the VA support the use of cannabis?
It’s a fine line that the doctors in the VA have to walk. What I understand from talking to the VA counselors personally is that doctors are not allowed to discuss marijuana unless the veterans themselves bring it up. Then they are allowed to discuss it, but they are not allowed to write recommendations and they can’t tell you what kind of strain to take or how much to smoke.
It is still this unknown and confusing position, because the VA itself doesn’t know how to handle it. The doctors in the VA are federally employed, so legally they can’t recommend cannabis without consequences. I know when you do tell them, they say if its working then don’t stop using it. That is the attitude that they relay to you.
Does stigma keep veterans from trying cannabis?
I think that one of the main issues is that veterans are either unaware or think that their VA benefits will be taken from them, because at one time that was a reality. If you tested positive then you no longer had access to your medications and VA services, but that is no longer the case.
Also, a big issue for many veterans is guns. If you have your medical marijuana card, and you are registered with the state, they can deny you your right to buy a gun. Since cannabis is a Schedule I drug and a federally illegal substance, and it is safe for them to assume if you have your state card that you are using a federally illicit substance. Therefore, they can deny you the purchase of a fire arm when they can see your name on the list. It is a big deal, because you are restricting peoples second amendment rights.
If you already have a firearm, you can keep it, but if you try to get a new one, you can get denied. Say you have cancer, if you are using marijuana oil and it is helping you maintain your life, you can get denied from buying a firearm just for taking a medication. So why aren’t we denying people who are drugs like opioids?
How would someone known I have a medical rec?
If I just have a doctor’s recommendation, for example from HelloMD, they cannot see that because HelloMD does not share my information with anyone. However, if I’m being compliant and get the state issued ID card with the state of California seal on it, then I am put on the state list. If you are on that list they can look you up and in-turn deny you to purchase a firearm. This ability to deny people the right to buy firearms based on medical marijuana cards was recently help up in federal court.
What do you say to cannabis newcomers?
Well, you can’t overdose on cannabis. There has been no recorded deaths associated with cannabis. We have a veteran’s cannabis group so people can come and meet and talk to other veterans who use cannabis and get past any stigma or lack of knowledge.
How can people learn more about VCG?
The best way to learn more is to visit our the [Veteran's Cannabis Website] (http://www.veteranscannabisgroup.com). I am always willing to talk to people and answer questions if they reach out to me.
Our goal with the Veterans Cannabis group is to ultimately make it so veterans have the ability to access cannabis through the VA. The VA is where most veterans get their medication from, so they really should be able to get their doctors recommendation and medical cannabis through the VA. That is the ideal goal. The VA provides every other kind of medication, they just don’t provide medical cannabis and they should.
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