Charles Claybaker spent five tours in Afghanistan, kicking in doors and taking out terrorists. But an aircraft crash in 2010 left the Army Ranger with a crushed leg, hip and spine and a traumatic brain injury.
Army doctors loaded him up with a dozen prescriptions to numb the pain and keep his PTSD in check.
But on the pills, Claybaker went from a highly-trained fighting machine to a zombie for at least two hours a day.
“I mean, I'm talking mouth open, staring into space,” Claybaker said.
Claybaker decided he would rather live in constant pain. He took himself off opioids and suffered for eight months.
Then, after retiring and moving back to St. Petersburg, he discovered marijuana – and it changed his life.
“I can just take a couple of puffs sometimes. It just depends on the day and what's going on or how bad it is,” Claybaker said.
He says marijuana relieved his pain and helped with his anxiety. Claybaker says marijuana also helped him focus and he finally started feeling more like himself.
“I was a 2013 gold medalist at the Warrior Games in archery, I graduated summa cum laude from Eckerd College, I started my own charity. I adopted my 14-year-old brother who is now on a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State,” he said. “I understand that marijuana has some ills, but for me personally, it absolutely helped me do all those things.”
In order to get the drug, though, he had to break the law. Even with medicinal marijuana legal in Florida, the federal government says it's a crime. Claybaker and other soldiers can't get a prescription from the VA and their insurance won't cover it. The out-of-pocket costs to buy a month’s supply from a dispensary can be upwards of $500.
Claybaker was among more than a dozen veterans recently profiled in a 20-page report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. They’re all pushing the federal government to reclassify marijuana. They vets are using the drug to treat conditions ranging from pain to PTSD.
But the report found the veterans face an uphill battle to change the rules so their VA doctors can prescribe it and their insurance will cover it.
That's because marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 drug, which means it has no medical value.
The classification, along with the its federal illegal status, means there hasn't been a lot of medical research on marijuana.
“We're realizing that there's a lot of holes here in our knowledge,” said Ziva Cooper, an associate professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center.
Last year, Cooper and other researchers published a study that evaluated 10,000 scientific papers in which marijuana was referenced. They found substantial evidence that chronic pain can be reduced by marijuana and substances, known as cannabinoids, that are found in it, including widely sold products like CBD.
But, the report found no scientific studies on marijuana's use for PTSD.
“We need those rigorous double-blind, placebo-controlled studies to inform us if cannabis can actually help with this, or cannabinoids,” Cooper said.
Janine Lutz thinks marijuana could have saved her son. John Lutz died from suicide after serving as a Lance Corporal in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He returned home to Davie in 2011 with injuries to his knee and back and a severe case of PTSD.
In 2013, doctors at the VA prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for his PTSD, despite a note in his records that it had led to a previous suicide attempt. His mom says he was dead within a week.
“I would call that a pharmaceutically-induced suicide,” Janine Lutz said. “And I actually sued the VA for that and I won my case.”
Lutz received $250,000 in a settlement with the VA.
Today Lutz runs the Live To Tell Foundation, which supports military veterans. Families of vets who committed suicide send her their photos, which she laminates and links to her traveling Memorial Wall.
Her “Buddy Up” events bring veterans together so they can form bonds and look out for one another.
It was at those events that she learned how many veterans self-medicate with marijuana. Lutz says the government needs to act.
“Stop playing games with the lives of America's sons and daughters and if they want cannabis, give it to them and stop giving them these psychotropic dangerous drugs that are destroying their bodies and their minds,” Lutz said.
The American Legion polled its 2 million membersand found that 92 percent favored marijuana research and 81 percent support federal legalization.
The group has since joined in the effort to push Congress to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug.
So far, that request has gone nowhere.
At a recent stop in Orlando, new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he has got to follow the rules.
“I'm not a doctor, never played one on television. I'm not a scientist,” Wilkie said. “I will follow the federal law. And the federal law is very clear.”
Charles Claybaker says he and other soldiers deserve better. Claybaker started speaking out after a good friend and fellow ranger committed suicide.
“I think that the government owes it to the veteran to provide the most beneficial treatments for their injuries,” he said.
Marijuana, he said, helps him get through the dark times. He thinks it can help others too.