Joshua Lee, a retired Army sergeant, stuffed almost 10-pounds of Smarties in a bag — to send a message.
The 9,828 candies represent the number of pills Lee is prescribed each year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), according to a post he made on Reddit that went viral Monday. The symbolic bag demonstrates the need for legal access to marijuana in the country, he argued.
Lee said he's prescribed a cocktail of pharmaceuticals for several conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fibromyalgia, and arthritis. The side effects of the drugs — and the lack of control he feels over his health care — motivated him to speak out about marijuana legalization and how it could help other disabled veterans.
Lee lives in Missouri, where marijuana remains strictly prohibited. In his post, he explained why he doesn't simply move to a legal state to gain access to cannabis:
"Yes, there are other states where medical marijuana is legal. I refuse to uproot my wife’s career as a licensed professional counselor, or my two children’s school careers, when instead I can stand my ground and fight for all patient’s rights, here in my home state of Missouri."
The viral post touches on two overlapping issues. First, there's are problematic prescribing trends at VA offices around the country.
From 2001 to 2013, opioid prescriptions at the VA shot up 230 percent, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. That's contributed, in part, to the fact that veterans overdose on these drugs at two times the national rate. Though the VA has updated its prescribing policies, the problem persists.
"[T]he number of veterans with opioid-use disorders continues to grow, spiking by 55 percent over the past five years, from 2010 to 2015," PBS Frontline reported. "The most recent figure, 68,000 veterans, represents about 13 percent of the total population of veterans currently taking opioids, according to VA data."
Second, research has shown marijuana can effectively treat many of the same conditions Lee has.
Though clinical trials looking at how marijuana use affects individuals suffering from PTSD are in their early phases, preliminary research indicates the plant can reduce anxiety and night terrors associated with the disorder. And as far as marijuana's effect on chronic pain and arthritis — which Lee also said he suffers from — numerous studies have established its effectiveness.
"I don’t blame the VA; I don’t blame my doctors, for prescribing what they know are long term poisons; these are the only choices our government allows them," Lee wrote. "I blame the divisive, stagnant, and willfully ignorant policies that condemn a plant available as a truly self-tailored medication."
Earlier this year, ATTN: interviewed veterans in Maine who used cannabis to curb addictions they developed to prescription drugs. You can view that episode here.