Like many veterans, the rigors of military service took a toll on Syracuse Native and Veteran Sarah Stenuf. And while a Traumatic Brain Injury was the root cause of her forcible retirement from military service, it didn’t put an end to the mental and physical pain she would endure when she returned home.
Similarly, Sarah felt lost and without purpose. “I got out of the military in my early 20s and the reality is I expected to be a ‘lifer’ and still had my GI Bill and tuition assistance. But by the time I got out I felt quite lost, quite sad and quite confused,” she said. Stenuf was loaded up on medications, more than 15 to be exact. She suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, sleep insomnia and constant pain. She was also in and out of rehab and nothing helped.
Advice from another veteran to try cannabis started her on the path she’s found herself on today. Suddenly what seemed like years of constant medication and pain, felt manageable. And while she doesn’t skirt around the fact that it did take some time to find what worked for her, it also made for a happier life for herself and those she loved.
“If I could find my sense of purpose and mission again and not be afraid of living and dying and if I can do this, then how many people don't know how to navigate this and how can I help them,” she said.
It sparked something in her and today, she’s not only a local cannabis grower but the creator of a nonprofit called Veterans Ananda. The organization was founded nearly five years ago and focuses on short-duration and long term programs for veterans. The non-profit uses traditional and non-traditional therapies to help, heal and rehabilitate service men and women. Under Sarah’s direction, Veterans like her can not only get acclimated with her cannabis farm but can feel better about it too.
Stenuf has also created a ‘Veterans Village’ at the farm,located in Oswego. It features five tiny homes offering veterans a short term stay to help them transition back into civilian life. While there, Veterans have the opportunity to learn and grow from the organization in a way that supports them, Stenuf says.
“We don't just give them the fish, we want to teach them how to fish so that they can take those tools with them wherever they go.”
Thankfully the ever changing landscape of legal use of medical marijuana has evolved to reflect the shifting attitudes of its use medically, but there’s still more work to do.
To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have state-approved medical marijuana programs. Two additional states have passed medical cannabis legislation that is expected to be fully implemented at a later date and seven states, including New York, permit CBD oil use. Physicians working with veterans face their own issues though. While it’s permitted in some states, the plant itself remains a federally prohibited drug. But advocates believe that medical cannabis use could help to potentially alleviate the opioid addiction crisis that exists among veterans.
That would be a major relief too, especially since according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 65 percent of veterans suffer from chronic pain and are twice as likely to die from an accidental prescription overdose as compared to non-veterans. Because of this, many veterans, like Sarah, are in search of alternatives to help them cope.
To date, Sarah is drug free and not taking any of the 16 medications she was prescribed nearly a decade ago. She’s also seizure free. For her, cannabis helped her stop and see what was going on. “I feel like I could slow down when I was on it and it helps me see things more clearly,” she says. “Because of that, I’m more productive at work and more loving and understanding to the people I love.”
According to USA Today, almost every VA facility has experienced a steady drop in its opioid prescription rates since 2012, with an overall decline of 41 percent. The VA is also continuing its efforts to promote safe prescribing practices which includes alternative therapies for its patients.
For Sarah, her organization is just one of the ways she’s helping others do that. “We want to make sure veterans are capitalizing on those benefits and remind them that they have a place and purpose.
Currently, VA doctors cannot provide or recommend medical marijuana for veterans as the federal status for cannabis remains a Schedule 1 substance. That classification makes the drug illegal according to the federal government. However, in a Journal of
Cannabis Research study and the analysis of more than 61,000 patients seeking medical cannabis authorizations in 12 states, nearly ten percent of patients reported looking to cannabis to mitigate symptoms of post-traumatic stress. PTSD was the third most common condition reported among those seeking authorizations, following only chronic pain and anxiety.
While many of these trials indicate that the use of medical cannabis can be beneficial to treating anxiety, insomnia, depression and PTSD a stigma still exists in the United States. For Veterans like Sarah, her own personal story is the basis for her push to help others like her.
Her argument in favor of cannabis for veterans is simple. “To each their own,” she says. “A lot of people will judge especially what they don’t know and I say do your own research, navigate it and actually sit down and sift through the facts and then let’s talk about it, because there’s still a lot to do.”
If you or a veteran you know needs help, Stenuf wants you to know that you’re never alone. To learn how they can help, call (315) 399-6469, email email@example.com or visit them online at Veteransananda.org.