Veterans took center stage at Cannabis Science Conference Fall to kick off the medical track with an important film screening followed by a panel discussion.
Cannabis Science Conference Fall kicked off the medical track on Thursday, September 21st with a special screening of the film Unprescribed presented by filmmaker, veteran, and founder of The Unprescribed non-profit, Steve Ellmore. After the screening, Ellmore joined a panel of fellow veterans for an open discussion on how medical cannabis impacted their lives as well as their work as advocates to help others. The panel was led by Cherissa Jackson, RN, the program chair of the medical track and a retired Air Force nurse known as "America's combat nurse.” Panelists included Ellmore; Ellen Brown, Founder, Green Path Training; Stephen Mandile, Veteran Advocate and Co-Founder Cannabis Advancement Series; and Wayne Smith, Former Combat Medic.
To start the panel discussion, Jackson introduced herself as a combat nurse who cared for soldiers on and off the battlefield. She expressed her deep concern about veterans' struggles with pharmaceuticals, opioid abuse, and substance abuse, leading to suicide among her friends.
Jackson asked each of the panelists to share their stories, starting with Ellmore. He shared that he had a suicide attempt himself during active duty and later discovered how cannabis could help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “When I found out that veterans were using cannabis to treat their PTSD, I made it my life's mission to investigate that and the film Unprescribed was my path and my journey,” said Ellmore.
Ellmore also founded a nonprofit called The Unprescribed to promote natural healing and alternative treatments such as cannabis and psilocybin. “The film is unprescribed, meaning you can't be prescribed cannabis you can only be recommended it. My new nonprofit takes on that same namesake in the goal of getting people off pharmaceuticals. The ‘unprescribed’ here are you and me who found natural healing,” he said.
The next veteran to share his experiences was Stephen Mandile. After his time in the service, he struggled with numerous medications, including fentanyl and oxycodone, and even attempted suicide. “Cannabis is the main reasons that I'm sitting in front of you today, breathing let alone speaking. I used cannabis to get off a laundry list of VA medications. I was on 57 different medications over 10 years,” said Mandile. “When I first started cannabis, I was using it to help with the withdrawal of coming off fentanyl, oxycodone, Xanax, Seroquel and a few other medications.”
Cannabis became a lifeline for Mandile, helping him regain a sense of purpose and self. He now advocates for veterans' access to cannabis. He also shard the initial thoughts and fears he had with using cannabis “I kept saying that I could get in trouble and then you're like, well, I'll take trouble because I'm a dad again. I'm husband again. Now I serve on the Select Board in my town and found another way to serve again and find purpose. I've been called many things over the years like a pothead and drug user and it's like you can call me whatever you want. Because my kids still get to call me dad and my wife still gets a call me her husband.”
Cannabis has also allowed Mandile to meet many other veterans and work on creating real legislative change. “There is a piece of legislation in Massachusetts that we're hoping to replicate in every state which will allow veterans in Massachusetts to access cannabis like they do in Ohio, Illinois, and North Dakota where you just submit your VA paperwork and it's a new pathway to that. No cost and a lot less stigma,” he said. “So, we're hoping we can move the needle forward. Maybe we'll do one state at a time. But I have some amazing people here that are in this to the end, and you know, we're veterans. We don't ever give up.”
Ellen Brown, a United States Air Force veteran, discussed her difficulty transitioning to civilian life after the military. She shared her journey from using VA prescription pills to discovering the benefits of cannabis. She passionately emphasized the need for advocacy and reform to ensure veterans' access to cannabis. Brown also discussed her work on trying to impact legislation and get PTSD added as a qualifying condition in Massachusetts, despite three tries and no movement. “Keep pushing us, keep pushing the veterans, keep pushing the advocates and see what happens. We get smarter. We adapt and we don't stop,” said Brown.
Wayne Smith, a Vietnam veteran and combat medic, discussed his experiences with cannabis during and after the war. He highlighted the importance of the cannabis community in advocating for veterans and changing the way the VA provides services. Smith expressed hope that cannabis would become a widely accepted treatment option for veterans. “There is a wide body not only of veterans but people that share your values and believe in medical cannabis. We need to keep putting pressure on Congress, state governments, and local municipalities so we can affect the kind of change that cannabis will be a common prescribed medication, that cannabis products will not be looked at as taboo and it will provide those of us that need it to help us get through some of the pain,” said Smith. “I have two types of cancer related to the Agent Orange I was exposed to in Vietnam. There's no way I would step foot in a VA hospital. This isn't just about me. But those kinds of options must be created for other veterans and that's what I'm committed to this work for the rest of my life just like so many of us veterans.”
Overall, the panelists emphasized the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis for veterans and the need for advocacy and reform to make it more accessible within the VA system. They shared personal stories of transformation and resilience and called for continued efforts to support veterans in their journey toward healing and recovery.
In response to the question about challenges faced when first using cannabis and how things have changed, Mandile shared his initial difficulties in accessing cannabis before medical dispensaries existed in Massachusetts. He had to buy from strangers and pay out of pocket, which was financially burdensome. However, he highlighted progress made in recent years, such as dispensaries offering discounts to veterans, making cannabis more affordable and accessible.
As fellow proud female veterans, Jackson asked Brown about her hope for women veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma and how cannabis can help them. “That's a great question and it is an important topic to bring attention to and to let people know that if they have ever experienced sexual trauma that there are resources that are nonjudgmental, they're here to help you; they're there, whether it is counseling or different resources that are needed. VA does have those resources,” said Brown. “Now do they answer the phone? That's the thing.”
Brown emphasized the importance of calling and demanding help sometimes, explaining that sometimes you need to be very persistent. She also stressed her role as a resource and advocate for veterans in the cannabis industry and encouraged others to reach out for support.
Lastly, Ellmore was asked about his commitment to addressing the increasing number of veterans taking their lives, which has risen from 22 to 44 a day. He affirmed his dedication to saving veterans' lives and expressed his concern about the rising suicide rate. He remains committed to his mission and the film's impact, hoping to continue making a difference and raising awareness about the challenges veterans face.
“I've always been a proponent of suicide prevention, especially in the veteran’s arena. And as far as the numbers go, a couple years ago, the numbers dropped down to like 17. I'm thankful that they're actually reporting the numbers more accurately. I think what they're doing is digging deeper and just uncovering it and my answer is very simple: One is too many. One is too many. It doesn't matter if it's 17, 20, 44… one is too many if we’re killing ourselves,” said Ellmore.
Ellmore added that he advocates for the use of cannabis as medicine and highlights the irony that some criticize its use while opioids are readily prescribed, despite the negative impact of opioids on job performance. He also discloses that he works in Veterans Administration and is actively involved in suicide prevention efforts. “They don't have the answer, but they're trying. And one of the first things they've done recently as a step in the right direction is they've changed the national suicide prevention hotline to 988, an easy number to remember. Veterans themselves can even press one and get put in touch with a specific, veteran oriented person who can relate to what they're going through,” said Ellmore.
The panel opened to a few audience questions and then concluded. It was a very important discussion that was well attended at Cannabis Science Conference. As Ellmore stated, “We need each other and we need to stick together, and together we can reduce those numbers, but we can't do it alone. We must all be one giant voice.”