In this piece, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) brings the focus back to two veterans they previously highlighted in an ASA newsletter: Doug Distasio and Todd Scattini.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA) routinely highlights the work of cannabis activists, including veteran activists. In this issue of Cannabis Patient Care, we wanted to bring the focus back to two veterans we previously highlighted in our ASA newsletter: Doug Distasio and Todd Scattini. Here are their stories.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Doug Distasio had his Air Force career upended by an aircraft accident in 2014. The host of injuries, including back, neck and head trauma, entailed a “bunch of stuff” he “wasn’t ready to deal with.” From 2014 until his retirement from active duty in 2017, Doug’s experience was what he calls “the standard wounded warrior story – a guy who got hurt and just tried to get better.” That meant a large number of pharmaceutical drugs, psychiatric support, and physical therapy. The drug side effects proved problematic.
“We sometime understand the interaction of a few drugs but not a dozen or more.” Doug says.
When Doug was promoted to full colonel, he talked to his wife, and they decided he should decline the promotion and leave the Air Force after 21 years of service. The injuries and meds were just too much.
“I’ll forever blame the many pills for having trouble finding myself and getting better,” Doug says. “No matter what combo pills and therapy they gave me, I wasn’t going to get better.”
The transition from military pilot and commander working at the Pentagon to private sector citizen was a hard one for Doug, and the many medications left him “discombobulated.”
Some friends who had also left the military suggested cannabis to Doug as a way to wean off the opioids and other pharmaceuticals.
“I went cold turkey, which I don’t recommend,” Doug recalls. “A slow drip wasn’t going to help. I needed to take bold action, but with my wife’s help, I pulled it off
Doug used cannabis to manage his opioid withdrawal, which helped minimize his symptoms, but he says withdrawal was still very hard.
“Cannabis helped me get control of my mind again,” Doug says. “I’m feeling better.”
Doug now works for a DC consulting firm on defense issues, and since he was already working on the Hill, becoming an advocate for veterans’ access to cannabis seemed like a good fit. Still, he thought about it a lot, recognizing the challenges that come with public advocacy, and has become an advocate for other veterans.
“I couldn’t see not doing it, after it helped so much,” Doug says.
After Doug retired in the summer of 2017, he started talking to Nick Etten, a former Navy SEAL who had founded the Veterans Cannabis Project, an advocacy group for service members in 2015. When Nick asked Doug for his help, Doug agreed. The group is still small but is involved in a number of state campaigns. Doug became the group’s executive director in 2019.
“In Virginia, we did a mission where we took three or four vets to the state capitol and had a discussion with lawmakers about why we’re doing this, what vets need,” Doug says. We reached 20,000 advocates in just a few months there, organizing petitions and other ways to show direct support to state lawmakers.”
This year, their focus is on Florida, where they are helping fight the caps on THC content.
“We’re trying to perform some sort of subject matter expert role.” Doug says. “Caps don’t do what you think they do. Education is our goal.”
They also had a campaign early this year in Massachusetts on why dispensaries should be classified as essential businesses. They ran some ads, and state officials changed course.
The group has been focused on “targets of opportunity,” but Doug recognizes that federal prohibition is “wiping out progress, no matter what you do on the state level.”
“The obstinacy of those in charge is shocking,” Doug says, noting that 90% of the public agree veterans should have safe access to cannabis for medicinal use, and support among veterans was 92% in an American Legion poll. “Cannabis is not a panacea or cure all, but if it can take you down a few pills, it’s worth it.”
Veterans are central to cannabis advocacy in Doug’s view, who reminds people that we lose 22 veterans a day because of pain and lack of hope and friendship, all of which he sees cannabis as naturally addressing. His strategy is “direct action missions.”
“As vets it’s our responsibility to explain this to people who’ve dug in their heels,” Doug says. “When we get to a congressman or senator we can give them that personal story, make it not so obscure.”
But that does not mean he and his team meet no resistance.
“The hardest piece is feeling like you’re being judged, that they think you’re doing something that has no medical benefit because it’s Schedule I,” says Doug. “’You just want to get high’—If I hear that again, I’m going to strangle someone. I’m functional or not functional.” The frustration helps drive Doug’s advocacy. As much as he senses people looking at him as someone on the fringe, he knows that statistics just don’t say that. He also has the support of his family, more so all the time.
“There is an obvious correlation between cannabis and how I’m feeling,” Doug says. “I can see the benefit, and my family and everyone around can see it.”
Bringing the military spouses in to testify to that is the next step Doug sees in bringing comprehensive change for veterans who use cannabis to heal.
“We shouldn’t have to forgo government employment, security clearance, or a bunch of things that are just not germane,” Doug says.
Todd Scattini’s journey to medical cannabis activism began, improbably, in Afghanistan. An Army officer, Scattini was asked in 2011 to devise a plan to create an industry for the Afghans out of the resources they had. The three main resources they had were opium, rare minerals (which China had secured the rights to), and cannabis. He decided hemp would be perfect. The plant was not just well suited to the region’s environment and farming techniques but promised to dilute the prohibition market in drug cannabis through cross-pollination. His proposal fell on deaf ears, but his hemp research had exposed him to information about the potential of medical cannabis, and he was hearing from veterans that it could help with everything from PTSD to chronic pain. By the time he got to his final post, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, he was passionate about medical cannabis and determined to apply all he’d learned in an unusual military career.
After enlisting in 1990, Scattini had been sent to the military language school in Monterey, then to West Point. He emerged an officer in the tank corps, speaking Czech, Slovak, Russian and German, and became a cavalry troop commander for the 1st Infantry Division stationed in Germany. He would go on to become a European Foreign Area Officer and defense attaché serving in six different countries, including the Czech Republic, Belgium, Bosnia, Slovenia, France and Afghanistan, where his liaison duties meant understanding not just the local language but the history, culture and politics of the place.
He would finish his military service teaching strategy at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, just across the river from Kansas City, Missouri.
“One of the first things I did at Ft. Leavenworth was go to the JAG office to ask if the Army would have any problem with me joining Kansas City NORML,” Scattini says. “They said I just couldn’t appear in uniform or use it myself.” So Scattini went to work raising awareness, speaking at every opportunity and engaging with veterans in Kansas City, which is home to the headquarters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
“The medical properties of cannabis were important, but the more I learned, the social justice impacts became very important,” says Scattini. “At the roots of prohibition were serious racism and greed—things that seemed incredibly un-American—and I wanted to change that. It didn’t seem representative of the country I had signed up to defend.”
After 27 years of service, Scattini retired as a Lt. Colonel at midnight on December 31, 2017. “One second later, cannabis was legal in California,” says Scattini, who sees many parallels between his own life and what’s happened with cannabis in the U.S., from being born in 1970, the year Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, to graduating West Point the year the first state medical law was passed.
A native Californian, Scattini decided to stay in Kansas City after he left the Army because he saw an opportunity to affect the situation in Missouri, which is home to more than 450,000 veterans. Eleven months later, the state’s voters approved Amendment 2, enacting a medical cannabis program Scattini calls the best in the nation.
Now he is pushing to make Kansas City a leading center for medical cannabis research in the U.S., meeting regularly with the mayor’s office about how blighted urban area can be revitalized by welcoming research, manufacturing, and dispensaries. He’s found allies in other West Point grads working in the Mayor’s office, and he’s lobbying the Veterans Administration and the VFW to support more research and access for veterans.
“Cannabis can be an alternative to the methods we have been using to treat the injuries of combat,” he says. “It can help alleviate not just suicides and overdoses but the problems veterans face with education, employment, homelessness and addiction.”
The day after Missouri passed its medical cannabis initiative, Scattini created Cavalry Cannabis, the first of two cannabis companies he has now founded.
“Reconnaissance is the cavalry’s mission, and as the nation expanded, it was cavalry scouts from Ft. Leavenworth who would escort settlers West,” he says. “We’re on a new frontier of medicine, and veterans should be part of leading the way.”
He’s now in the process of pursuing a license for a fully integrated facility for research and development that he hopes will attract support from the VA and Department of Defense. His Harvest 360 Tech project is using analytics to create 3D maps of cannabis for therapeutic applications. He has also been working on The Athena Protocol a strategy to mitigate and treat Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), what he describes as his passion project.
“I had a platoon leader die from the effects of a head injury after five weeks,” he says. “Losing him was really painful for me. I’m convinced immediate treatment with cannabinoids might have saved him.”
Scattini is also convinced that Kansas City has the potential to be the leader for medical cannabis in the U.S.
“We’re in the geographic center of the country, we have so many veterans and services for them here, and we have the city government completely on board,” Scattini says. “We’re working with them to rebuild the infrastructure of the past to become a city of the future -- something they can be very proud of.”
These profiles were previously published by Americans for Safe Access in their October 2020 and February 2019 ASA Activist Newsletter. To see the original newsletters, please visit https://www.safeaccessnow.org/asa_activist_newsletter_october_2020 and https://www.safeaccessnow.org/asa_activist_newsletter_february_2019.
WILLIAM DOLPHIN produces Americans for Safe Access's (ASA's) monthly Activist Newsletter and has been part of ASA's communications team since 2002. He is the co-author of The Medicalization of Marijuana: Legitimacy, Stigma, and the Patient Experience, an award-winning book of medical sociology, and has published hundreds of articles on cannabis and other topics. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including UC Berkeley, and is currently working on a book about cannabis use and mental health.