The major class-action cannabis lawsuit against Attorney General Jeff Sessions is looking progressively better for its many plaintiffs. In addition to NFL player-turned-entrepreneur Marvin Washington, cannabis patients Alexis Bortell and Jagger Cotte, and Army combat veteran Jose Belen, the list includes the Cannabis Cultural Association (CCA), a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized and underrepresented communities engage in the legal cannabis industry.
During the oral arguments of the Sessions case in New York District Court this week, CCA and its allies were optimistic about Judge Alvin Hellerstein’s consideration. Though Hellerstein is still deliberating on Sessions’ motion to dismiss, he stated for the record that cannabis does save lives, one of the first judges ever to do so in open court.
CCA Board Secretary Sarah Stenuf knows this firsthand. The New York-based veteran, now a cannabis patient, advocate, and enthusiast, served four years in the United States Army as an Apache helicopter mechanic before being medically retired for epilepsy and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She is currently on a mission to raise awareness about cannabis’s uses in holistic medicine, especially as it relates to veterans’ rehabilitation.
Recently we met Stenuf at the Women Grow Leadership Summit in Denver, where she was a featured speaker on cannabis and PTSD treatment. She sat with us privately to share her story.
“We’re a special family in the [cannabis] community,” Stenuf says right off the bat. “People are here with stories and purpose and passion that just motivate and inspire you… What’s unique about this community is that I can see it changing. I can see the adaptation, I can see the reform. Because we are more than just an industry, which is a commerce word, we are a community. I’ve only been a solid advocate out in the movement for about a year and a half, but just in that year and a half I can see the bridges and the bonds forming. We’re building foundations of hope for one another and it’s creating positive change for people.”
Stenuf counts herself as particularly fortunate for benefitting from the developing research and policy reform. She is a woman of rare experience, part of the 2.34% of female American helicopter mechanics who’ve served on active duty. After serving at Fort Drum in Jefferson County, New York and completing a 12-month tour of duty in Afghanistan at Forward Operating Base Salerno (one of the heaviest rocket-targeted areas that the US occupied from 2002-2013), Stenuf was diagnosed with epilepsy due to a traumatic brain injury and combat PTSD. That diagnosis came with a litany of Army-prescribed medicines and ended Stenuf’s career as she knew it.
I hid my condition for a while from my command because I knew, as an Apache helicopter crew chief, I probably couldn’t work on helicopters with epilepsy. So I hid my seizures… and then my warrant officers found out and I actually got written up on Article 15 for not being command-ready and mission-essential, which was my fault. I should have been open and honest from the start, but I was scared at being medically discharged from a job I love. But [eventually] I told them and that’s probably the worst thing I could’ve done, because after that I went to neurologists who didn’t know what was wrong and then the medications just started from there and that’s how the military works, you just don’t question the system. Take the pills, get back to mission ready.
After numerous tests and visiting a wide range of doctors, Stenuf was administered a medical discharge and ultimately prescribed nearly thirteen medications. Under constant pressure to be compliant with military regulations for veteran patients, she felt unable to challenge any of her doctors’ opinions.
“It was kind of a forced med. It was either take the pills and be compliant or don’t and be a liability, which came with consequences,” Stenuf explains.
It started off with one or two and then those had side effects or weren’t strong enough, and then you build up tolerance or symptoms and then those pills don’t work anymore, and then more symptoms come. It was a downward spiral. By the time I met my wife, I was at a dual diagnosis program – for PTSD and substance abuse – ‘cause I was using alcohol and drugs just to get by, to feel “normal”. The cocaine made me happy and with the alcohol I went to sleep. The pills [from the Veterans Affairs doctors] just didn’t do that… They made me often suicidal, or homicidal. So I often stayed home and isolated myself. Vitamin D deficiency, bone muscle issues, constant tremors, eyesight problems, everything just started to unwinding and become out of control. I even went up to close to 150 pounds at one point just from all the meds.
It seemed none of the Army’s doctors or psychiatrists were conferring on Stenuf’s medications, determining their possible side effects or how they interacted with each other. Many of the prescription drugs, she reveals, had seizures listed as a side effect and actually caused her epilepsy to worsen. She needed to find another path to recovery.
As Stenuf and her wife started investigating alternative methods of care, they discovered more and more research that pointed to cannabis as a viable resource. Though Stenuf had flirted with recreational marijuana as a teenager, she’d never thought of it as a potential medicine.
I realized maybe cannabis could help. But my wife was like, “Well, what are you going to do? You can’t go to the hospital, to talk to a VA doctor.” Just by talking about marijuana to my VA doctor (at that time), I was labeled as a substance abuser. And then if you were a substance abuser, you’re more of a liability than an asset at that point. Granted, I already was labeled with cocaine and alcohol dependencies, but I’m sitting here going, “Wow, if the VA automatically negatively labels me as a substance abuser because marijuana is a schedule 1 drug, then how am I going to talk to you to wean off my medicine utilizing this plant that clearly works for me?”
Without support from the VA, Stenuf was left to experiment on her own body. Doing research at home on her medication and integrating certain cannabis and CBD products, while journaling her journey and using peer support for guidance, she learned more about trauma and the human endocannabinoid system as well as the cannabis plant and other botanical medicines.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘It’s going to be one hell of a rollercoaster ride, but we’re going to do it,’” Stenuf notes. Through various cannabis and CBD treatments, plus her own research on trauma, she dropped from thirteen opioid medications to none!
“I now treat and respect cannabis as a preventative medicine,” she affirms. “Not as a cure-all (just yet), expecting it to do all the work on its own… We all have a deficiency, especially in our endocannabinoid system. I micro-dose and utilize cannabis and respect my body and integrate it with my therapies and treatments. That together has made a huge, tremendous 180 in my life.”
The scientific process of cannabis treating PTSD is fascinating, Stenuf elaborates. When a person experiences trauma, from verbal abuse to car accidents to rape to war, that initiates a chemical imbalance in the body. Endogenous cannabinoids that our body naturally produces become depleted and the neuron receptors sites (which can spark happy feelings) are not being filled. Traditional methods of treatment, such as prescription drugs, talk therapy, and even art therapy, will only go so far for some people because they often cannot refill the receptor sites or create those chemicals to bring the body back to homeostasis or balance, after the trauma. However, cannabis, if utilized with these other treatments and therapies, can. A trauma patient who utilizes cannabis is giving his/her body a dose of the plant’s phytocannabinoids, which the patient’s own endocannabinoid system can use to replenish its empty receptor sites.
As Stenuf states, “That sounds to me like a therapeutic reaction. And if you integrate cannabis with other holistic treatments like art and music and [talk] therapy, to open up the non-verbal pathways in the mind, you can truly obtain an individualized form of therapy and treatment for that patient, to help that person rehabilitate and have tools to use throughout their aftercare. ”
“The communities I’m in, from local to the veteran and cannabis communities, have been so supportive and welcoming,” she adds.
[As a patient with PTSD and epilepsy], everything from talking to sex to going out in crowds has been different for me, which was scary because I needed to learn a lot of it all over again. And for a long time I feared the unknown and the change that came along with it. But in the community, I have people I can call 24 hours a day, and they aren’t necessarily veterans, but we support one another. It has been one therapeutic journey using peer to peer support, social media, exposure therapy at these events. Learning to talk and connect with others by help one another. It goes back to our social responsibility to help one another in the community. To education on a local level, create grassroots movements, and always making those necessary change. If it’s broken, then fix it and make it better then before…and I am. Once I started to become aware of my personal changes and growth and realized how beautiful life truly can be, I knew I needed to give-back and share this knowledge with people.
Today Stenuf is the founder of HappyHealing420 LLC, a community-based business entity which will also be a collective in New York. She also recently created Veteran’s Ananda Inc, a soon-to-be 501(c)(3) nonprofit veterans’ homestead based in upstate New York that will provide traditional and nontraditional treatments and therapies for veterans, first responders, their caregivers and family members.
While Stenuf concedes that cannabis policy in the US has a long way to go, she can’t help but be positive about how the movement is picking up steam. The latest developments in cannabis research are “making more affordable and safer access for patients, providing the statistics to prove that homelessness is going down, opioid addiction is going down… and with the shift in laws and policies, more jobs and entrepreneurship as well as careers and opportunities are becoming available. You can’t steer clear of the facts and the anecdotal evidence (which is evidence). And the facts are becoming more clear – the people themselves are seeing that ‘clearer’ image and it’s inevitable that change is here.”
What would Stenuf most like to see in cannabis’s immediate future?
Decriminalization needs to happen first and foremost. That takes the pressure off of the patients and caregivers, and puts [it] onto the cartel and drug dealers while forcing the government to integrate make changes from the ground, up. If we take away the criminalization on the federal, state, and local level, we can figure out how to implement education, business, laws and policies as well as healthcare changes and social justice reform without diving in, which would be setting ourselves up for failure. Jumping right into legalization and not decriminalizing first would only cause a blame game on a system that was set up for failure in the first place. Decriminalization before legalization may be a longer process, but let’s do it right for the next generations.
To learn more about Sarah Stenuf’s advocacy and resources for veterans, follow HappyHealing420 LLC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more about the Cannabis Cultural Association, visit cannacultural.org or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.