Why This Vet Was Denied Medication Over Marijuana?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is no stranger to controversy. In a recent situation, a Vietnam veteran in Topeka, Kansas, was denied his much-needed pain medication due to marijuana. The story grabbed headlines this week: it is part of a larger argument between the VA and veterans advocacy groups over the denying of prescription medication because of marijuana use. (Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration, however, some states have legalized it for either medical or recreational use. There is also a growing trend of using marijuana to treat PTSD in veterans.)

Related: Here's What Marijuana Does to Your Stress

Related: These Colorado Military Vets Are Suing Over Marijuana

Gary Dixon, the 65-year-old veteran, was reportedly exposed to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam, and he has stage four lung cancer. Agent Orange is an herbicide that was sprayed all over Vietnam. It was supposed to clear the jungle of plant life to make fighting easier, however, it negatively affected the health of many people.

During a recent trip to the VA in Topeka, Dixon was asked to do a urine test and sign an opiate consent form, which is a recent change made to VA policy. He explained to them he didn't need to do a urine test, because he would just admit that he smokes marijuana to treat his PTSD. Due to that fact, they denied him his pain medication, stating it was part of the VA's policy. He usually takes 10 to 15 pills per day, according to WBay.com. ATTN: caught up with Dixon to learn what happened. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



ATTN: Tell me about why you smoke marijuana.

Gary Dixon: When I came back from Vietnam, I had PTSD. Nobody knew what PTSD was; they called it shell shock. So when we came home, nobody understood, and there was no one to talk to. I went to the VA saying there was something wrong with me, and there was nothing they could do. They didn't know what to do. In about 1972, I told one of my college friends how I was feeling, and he said to try [marijuana], so I did. Ever since then, it's worked.

I started smoking in 1972, because it made me feel better, and it let me live as a human, rather than a guy who spends 24 hours a day afraid of hearing another sound that reminds me of a chopper coming in. It makes a difference. I wasn't hearing that anymore.

ATTN: What do your pain meds do for you?

GD: I have stage four lung cancer from Agent Orange. It was a [chemical] used in Vietnam, and I used to spray it. It was really stupid. Who ever thought the spray would kill a bunch of weeds and trees and not kill people?

I'm going through a lot of pain right now, but if I can help other veterans going through this, I'll be happy. I took one [of the meds] in the morning and one in the evening, and small doses during the day if I needed it, because I have pain in pretty much my whole body ... That medicine that was given to me, it wasn't really that great, but it was something. I was smoking some marijuana, and it wasn't helping a lot either, but it was something. It helped a lot more, because at least I had that to stop me from taking more medication. I don't want to keep taking more pills and saying to myself that I'm destroying my liver.

ATTN: What happened when you went to the VA recently?

GD: They told me I had to take a urine test and sign an opiate form ... They told me to take a urine test, and they made a nurse go in there with me, and I said, "If you're trying to take me in here to see if I've been smoking pot, then you're wasting my time and yours and your money, because I said, 'Yes, I have, and it's ridiculous to do a test to find out.'" They said they wouldn't be able to give me any pain meds, because it's a narcotic. I said it hadn't been a problem before, because I've smoked pot since 1972. They've always known it. The VA has always known it ... I've had doctors and people tell me that if they could, they would recommend marijuana, but they can't and don't.

ATTN: Do you think a lot of veterans smoke marijuana?

GD: Absolutely. I know veterans who have hurt for 50 years—some of them so bad they can't walk. They've had strokes, and they end up in wheel chairs. But even though they can't walk, they still have the pain in their feet ... Probably over half of the [veterans] I know smoke marijuana, and half of them aren't even [physically] disabled veterans, they're just veterans, but they are disabled with PTSD. They do smoke, and it does help.

ATTN: How was your time right after Vietnam?

GD: My first 10 years out of Vietnam were horrible, and I know they were for most of these guys. I don't care how blessed or lucky they were. I was a recording music star, believe it or not, at the time. I was out of Nashville, Tennessee, but it hurt me so bad I had to quit my career. The one love I had in this world was my music, but I had to quit. I was lucky, because I had a couple hits, but it hurt me so bad that I had to quit.

ATTN: Is there anything else you'd like to say?

GD: I have no idea—my wife has no idea—what we're going to do about the pain. I'm gonna deal with it the best I can; I'm not gonna let it beat me. It's not a question of people sending money. I had a lady send me $10. We sent it back. It wasn't a question of that. It's a question of a system that needs to be [changed]. The boys, the veterans, this is going to keep happening to these guys ... It's all going to hell. This is not about me, this is about all of us.

The VA denied a request for comment.

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Posted by ATTN: on Wednesday, June 3, 2015