As a U.S. Army medic during the invasion of Iraq, Dante Cammarata was tasked with treating wounds, handing out pills and saving lives.
Back in the civilian world and grappling with his own less visible wounds, Cammarata, 34, says the cannabis plant probably saved his life.
Now the Olympia college student hopes to keep fellow veterans from taking their own lives by promoting marijuana as an alternative to prescription pills. By one estimate, post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“We served this country proudly,” Cammarata said, “and we don’t want to be seen as criminals for trying to help ourselves.”
The Legislature agreed this year. An overhaul of Washington’s medical-marijuana system that takes effect Friday adds PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to the conditions a medical provider can cite in authorizing the drug.
The limited research on pot as treatment for PTSD is inconclusive. One state-funded Colorado study is just getting started. And the federal government remains unconvinced. But Washington will be the 11th state to specifically include PTSD as a qualifying condition, said Mike Krawitz, executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access.
Medical-marijuana authorization cards aren’t traditionally difficult to obtain in Washington, and the stores that dispense medical pot haven’t been regulated. But the legal changes taking effect Friday also tighten language on medical conditions and crack down on providers making a living churning out cards.
Other parts of the overhaul law, Senate Bill 5052, hit next year and force shops to obtain new state licenses or shut down. Activists are raising money for a court challenge to the law and plan a rally Friday at the Capitol Campus.
But a rally on the campus Wednesday celebrated the parts of the law that provide new access for military veterans.
An average of 22 veterans commit suicide daily, according to one estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Hence the name the advocates have adopted: Twenty22Many, pronounced “twenty-two too many.” Members meet at Rainier Xpress, a downtown Olympia medical-marijuana shop whose owner Patrick Seifert is a lead organizer of the group.
A green band with the number 22 encircles Cammarata’s tattooed arm.
When he was still in the Army and among soldiers, he said things seemed OK. But out of the military and on his own, the nightmares and depression came.
“You get into this hole, and you start focusing on these memories that you never dealt with,” he said.
Pot helped, he said. Cammarata figures it probably kept him from committing suicide during years living in the Netherlands.
But he didn’t find full relief until he combined the drug with counseling, exercise, meditation, hypnosis and other therapy.
Back home in the South Sound since 2013, Cammarata obtained an authorization for marijuana as treatment for pain from a spinal condition. He relies on a vaporizer designed by Seifert to deliver a dose of the strain of marijuana he needs at any given time, whether an episode hits him in class or as a nightmare in bed.
Washington law now allows any adult 21 or older to buy marijuana in state-licensed stores. But a medical authorization for PTSD is the right approach, said Cammarata, who hopes the VA will one day use marijuana as part of a treatment plan.
“Cannabis by itself can be abused, just like anything,” he said. “It needs to be recognized as the medicine it is.”