Online Pro-Cannabis Veterans' groups have grown throughout the two- year pandemic, even though the Veterans Administration hides behind bureaucracy to deny medical marijuana to wounded warriors.
Here in Arizona, the Balanced Veterans Network seeks to provide a safe community for vets as well as “education, advocacy, and empowerment of alternative therapies for veterans.”
The group will be on hand for the upcoming Cannafriends event on March 24 in an effort to reach Tucson veterans searching for help.
“Last year, I started looking into BVN,” said Jen Baxter, ambassador and team coordinator for the Arizona chapter of the organization. “Their mission was everything I had embodied for myself starting several years prior: mental wellness, movement, community.”
She was so in tune with the organization’s message that she recently stepped into her ambassador role in order to help get the message out to fellow vets who might be suffering in the wake of their service.
Baxter came to BVN after joining another nonprofit known as the 1620 Project (the organizations have since merged into BVN) that helps veterans learn about and gain access to the medicine that can often be a life-saver when vets have otherwise given up hope.
Her story is a familiar one for U.S. military veterans. After serving her country faithfully for 14 years, she was given a medical discharge and became enmeshed in the VA healthcare system that tends to solve health and mental wellness problems with pharmaceuticals.
An Air Force veteran, Baxter served in the security forces career field and was injured after serving more than 10 years. As a first responder, she was also exposed to incidents that led to post-traumatic stress disorder that she wrestles with to this day.
After a series of unsuccessful operations on her foot and back, she was placed on a heavy regimen of painkillers and sent to an evaluation board to determine if she was still capable of fulfilling her job duties. After two-and-a-half years of medication and unsuccessful treatments, she was deemed “unfit” to continue and offered full retirement in 2012.
Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of her struggles with opiate dependency. For the next four years, Baxter was trapped in an addiction cycle that led to weight gain and depression that almost made her give up.
“The military does a wonderful job of building you up, grooming you and preparing you, training and everything to get you to where you need to be for them,” she said. “Then they give you a one-week transition course and teach you how to write a résumé and what cologne to wear, what clothes to wear and what not to wear. Then they give you a thank you note and send you on your way.”
By 2015 she could barely drag herself out of bed to even go to the bathroom and was tipping the scales at about 230 pounds.
The VA was treating Baxter with a cocktail of opiates for pain, depression and PTSD, including morphine and oxycodone, to the tune of hundreds of pills a month.
“I’d get my prescriptions, get in my car, pop two or three oxys in my mouth, throw it back with some Red Bull and then be on my way,” she said. “By the time I stopped taking them, I was going through 480 pills in 21 days, because I had learned that I could use the morphine to hold off the withdrawals.”
By then, the Syracuse, New York, native was living in rural Missouri. She joined a bowling league in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, just so she could get out of the house.
As she socialized, a friend noticed a change in Baxter and suggested a diet and workout program. Baxter was “digging deep” and wanted to do improve her mental and physical health.
It was around then that Baxter found the 1620 Project, which helped her find an alternative to opiates and antidepressants.
“It was bad,” she remembers. “I just looked sick and everything about me was unhealthy.”
In March 2016, Baxter decided she had enough and circled a date on the calendar to begin the regimen that would eventually save her life.
Slowly, things began to change. She stuck with the new diet, continued to exercise regimen and started writing a journal. She also used morphine and cannabis to wean herself from the oxycodone that was taking her down.
The biggest move for Baxter was the day she took her pills back to the VA after bringing home a bag of prescriptions she never opened.
“I think I had 900 pills total, and took them to the VA,” she said. “I had an appointment with my provider and said I am in crisis mode and need to get these out of my house because I’ve stopped taking them.”
Her doctor was perplexed and did not know how to react beyond offering “muscle relaxers or something.” Baxter eventually convinced her doctor that she was serious about ending her dependency and, after being referred to four or five different people, took the pills to the VA police who watched her open every bottle and dump them into a charcoal bin.
“So here I am with my backpack full of drugs that I could have taken into Leavenworth, Kansas, and sold for thousands of dollars,” she said. “The pharmacy people are looking at me like I’m crazy, but I knew if I went home it would not be good.”
Baxter moved from Missouri—where she had to procure her medicine on the alternative market—to San Diego, but eventually made her way to Gilbert, where she has social support and easier access to cannabis. Despite all the progress she’s made, she still has long-lasting issues to deal with, but having a community and a mission has helped her cope with her day-to-day life.
“One of the most frustrating things is, because I look healthier, people think I don’t have pains, I don’t have PTSD issues, I don’t have sleep problems,” she said. “It’s frustrating and almost like the system that we’re in wants you to be sick. If you don’t look sick, they say well, what the fuck is wrong with you? Why don’t you go make a living?”
In 2017, she joined up with the 1620 Project and has since made the transition to the BVN, a “peer-to-peer network” that partners with “professionals, businesses and other organizations to support veterans and their families to live a better, more balanced life,” according to its mission statement.
While they don’t see medication as the end-all, be-all for veterans, they advocate for medical marijuana access in order to “combat the alarming issues like the suicide and opioid epidemic and the difficult time navigating transition out of the military.”
“When you retire, you lose so much of your identity and everything that you’ve known, whether it’s four years or 24 years, it doesn’t matter, you lose this huge thing,” Baxter said.
BVN has also helped Tucson resident and Navy veteran Lewis Hapeman, who comes from a military family that goes back to the Civil War, where his great-great-great grandfather received a Medal of Honor.
Hapeman’s service was cut short, but he still suffers with ailments connected to his service, such as COPD and lung damage due to asbestos.
He has lived on the verge of homelessness at times in his life, but a few years ago became involved with the 1620 Project, which has helped him gain access to cannabis and get other necessary equipment.
Like many other veterans, Hapeman dealt with over-prescription of opiates and had his own fight with addiction.
“BVN gives you the vibe that you can be who you are and they don’t allow judgment,” he said. “They don’t allow any bullshit.”
What it really comes down to though, is the community and balanced approach to life that can be achieved within a group sharing similar goals.
“Veterans need to have a sense of purpose, we need to have something greater than ourselves to give into,” Baxter said. “I show people I love them by doing things for them and it just fills my cup so much to know that I can make an impact in other veterans’ lives, to show them there is a community here for them.”
Among the benefits of joining BVN, are monthly drawings for health and wellness equipment and even starter grow kits to help vets grow their own medicine. The nonprofit has tiered levels of paid membership as well as a free version for those who can’t afford to pay.
For more information, go to balanced-veterans.com, or check out the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/balancedveterans.
To find out more about BVN in a cannabis-friendly, social atmosphere, sign up for the next Cannafriends gathering, taking place at Annabelle Studio, 630 E. Ninth St., on Thursday, March 24, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
In addition to vendors on hand with their wares, there will also be an expungement clinic hosted by Arizona NORML for those with minor pot infractions of up to 2.5 ounces of flower, 12.5 grams of concentrates, six plants or paraphernalia.
Tickets for the event are $20 and can be found on EventBright by searching Tucson Cannafriends. For more information, contact Amethyst Kinney, Cannafriends Regional Director, at amethyst@azcannafriend