Eighteen years after Alaskans were granted permission to use medical marijuana, there is still not a single place to buy it. It’s a cruel conundrum caused by the lack of a provision about dispensaries in the bill legalizing it.
Fed up with the treatment of these men and women, some nonprofits in Alaska have begun giving free marijuana to veterans and sick patients. Call it the pot version of Meals on Wheels, the cannabis army, or the reefer buyer’s club—whatever you call it, it’s working.
In past years, some Alaskans have attempted to bypass the system by offering “free” marijuana, but requiring a donation. Recently the state began cracking down, landing a few of these people in court. Adults in Alaska are permitted to gift up to an ounce of marijuana, but are not allowed to receive any monetary payment in return; this is the part that these groups have subtracted from the equation.
One group leading the charge is Alaska’s Green Angels, a 400-member Facebook group started by three friends. Darby Andrews, one of the founders, is a veteran himself who uses marijuana to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder. While he’s lucky enough to be able to grow the medicine he needs, he’s acutely aware of his less fortunate peers.
After gathering the medicine he needs from the few plants that the state allows Alaskans to grow at home, he makes a stash to give to someone in need. “Anything extra we use to help other people,” he tells The Daily Beast. Beyond the lack of dispensaries, Andrews cites the lack of doctors willing to prescribe it as another roadblock.
Alaska, despite the difficulty veterans face in obtaining marijuana, has led the way for marijuana reform in many ways. In 1975 it became the first state to allow its residents to keep a small amount for personal use. In 1998, following similar decisions in New Mexico and California, it legalized marijuana for medical use. Then in a historic vote last February, it became the third state in the nation to legalize marijuana recreationally.
Still, with the new law set to take effect in late summer or fall of this year, veterans are struggling to find ways to get the medicine that they need. Activists were hopeful that a reform allowing Veterans Affairs to prescribe the drug would alleviate this problem, but the provision did not make it into the final bill.
Alaska’s medical marijuana system is broken, and no one seems willing to fix it. “It’s like [the state] said, ‘Sure, go ahead, you can have it but you can’t buy it, sell it, or transport it,’” says Andrews. “It’s just supposed to magically appear.
In a way, that’s the scenario his group has created.
Those who need cannabis—“angels in need”—can post on the Facebook group and ask for help. Those with some marijuana to spare—“angels in deed”—respond. At first, Andrews and the other two founders were the primary donors, catering to a small group of members that they knew first hand. But over the course of a year the operation has “taken on a life of its own,” now a virtual hub for those in need to meet those itching to “do a good deed.”
The Green Angels have received considerable support from the outside with The Weed for Warriors Project giving them a shoutout on Facebook. “Veterans taking caring of Veterans, because the Government doesn’t give a shit about us so we must take care of our own,” Weed for Warriors wrote.
Many in the medical world have been vocal about their support of cannabis to treat PTSD, which doctors believe is one of reasons the suicide rate among veterans, 22 a day, is so high. More than half of the 24 states in the U.S. list PTSD as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana and veterans nationwide have come out in support of it with their own testimony.
In November, The Daily Beast covered the story of an Iraqi veteran who said using medical marijuana to treat his PTSD got him off opiates and saved his life. “All I wanted to do was learn about it, because I was fucking amazed at the way I felt. I got myself back,” he said. “Once you start feeling, you start healing. It’s like Frozen, man.”
That’s of course not to say that everyone in the medical community is in favor of using medical marijuana to treat PTSD. In a 2014 hearing Rep. John C. Fleming—both a physician and military veteran—spoke out against it. “Having treated veterans in VA hospitals, one of the last things in the world we should be doing is giving addicting substances to people with PTSD,” he said. “Any good physician would tell you that.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs specifically advises against it on their website, citing a lack of proof that it works. “Controlled studies have not been conducted to evaluate the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana for PTSD,” it reads. “Thus, there is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD.”
One researcher in the U.S., Sue Sisley, received approval to test marijuana on veterans with PTSD, but after being fired from the University of Arizona, she’s still struggling to find funding.
Until she does, veterans and sick patients in Alaska will have to rely on people like the Green Angels for their medicine—a group that Andrews hopes will continue to gain donors. “Don’t afraid to get out there,” he instructs the patients. “Accept any help that comes.”